Ask yourself a serious question: Are you, without meaning to be, sometimes biased against other women?
That is the starting point for feminist Mary Ann Sieghart’s Radio 4 Analysis programme, Why Are Even Women Biased Against Women?
Examples of women’s bias against other women abound. The programme begins with a snippet from an interview with multi-award-winning actress Anne Hathaway. Speaking about working with director Lone Scherfig on the movie One Day, Hathaway admits to “internalised misogyny,” saying she regretted not trusting Scherfig as much as she would have trusted a male director. Hathaway went further, saying that when she watched a film directed by a man, she focused on what was good about it; when it was directed by a woman, she tended to focus on what was wrong with it.
Next, Sieghart talks to US author Catherine Nichols who, when submitting her manuscript to (a majority of female) literary agents, only got two interested responses to 50 letters. Then Nichols did the old Brontë sisters' trick, changed her name to a man's and sent the same information again. This time she got 17 responses expressing interest. Turns out she was eight times a better writer with a male pseudonym.
That author’s experience may be anecdotal, but there is scientific evidence of bias too. A Yale study submitted different CVs with typically male and female names for the same lab manager job, with similar results. Not only were the male applicants seen as more employable and more competent, the male lab manager would be paid more, despite having an identical CV. What’s more, the bias was of the same magnitude, whether the hiring professor was male or female.
So gender bias exists and women are sexist too, with even avowed feminists unconsciously biased against women. But where do these discriminatory attitudes come from and what can we do about them?
The reasons for the pervasive bias seem to lie in the unconscious – the concepts, memories and associations mapped onto our brains and reinforced from early childhood.
Sieghart delves into the unconscious brain and the complex social process that fires our behaviour. (There is a very interesting comment about Twitter and how men tend to be more retweeted and liked – check your own social media to see if you are guilty of this.)
One commentator adds that men are continually associated with high status (just take a look at the make-up of almost every government or board of any FTSE 100 company). If every time we go to work, switch on the TV or radio, we see and hear men being associated with leadership and competency, then that is what we're going to believe. The more we are exposed to sexist attitudes, the more we become hardwired to be sexist.
Our implicit bias comes from socialisation and our culture – but it also goes as far back as our evolution. It's so deep we don’t even realise what is guiding how we behave. We might think we are unbiased in our conscious minds, but the bias is in our subconscious.
So what can we do about it? First, we have to want to do something about it. Then it’s time to face up to our own bias and challenge it. Sieghart’s parting suggestion: The next time you assume a woman isn’t competent until she proves otherwise, give yourself a slap, realise it’s your reptilian brain talking and that you aren’t a caveman…or woman.
Why Are Even Women Biased Against Women? is available on BBC iPlayer now and will be repeated on Radio 4 on 4th February at 9.30pm.