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Women after all - let's dump the bias

04 May 2015

benevolent sexism

The other day I ran across an excerpt from a new book, Women After All (Norton) by Melvin Konner, an American professor of anthropology. Based on some startling biological facts, Professor Konner argues, according to one reviewer, Dr David Barash, that “women are, in nearly every way that really matters, superior to men and, moreover, that this superiority is finally becoming evident in our societies.”

It made me sit up and think: Really?

I decided to have a look at what goes on around me to see if this superiority is making its influence felt. I thought I’d begin with how the book is being received.

The majority of online comments, certainly under Dr Barash’s review, would appear, at least from the maleness of the names, to be from a lot of very angry men who don’t even want women to achieve gender parity let alone some sort of superiority.

Vicious anti-women comments are not surprising, but this time I actually found them heartening. After all, if there’s that much protest and negative chatter then something’s going on.

As a large corporate aiming to achieve gender equality within the next two years, we know we have a big task ahead of us, which is why the commitment from our CEO down is so important. It always surprises me that in creating equality you continue to get people saying ‘it’s not fair – all we hear about is women’. The very point of equality and the processes and structures that accompany it - things like flexible work practices, targets and advancement on merit, freedom from unconscious bias - is they’re fair.

The rub of the matter, of course, is unconscious bias. Our IWD research this year into young people’s attitudes toward career and career choice revealed that much of our early gender stereotyping, not just in the workplace but within our wider societal values, is already in place and usually set by our parents. Girls and boys are expected and expect to do different things when they reach the workplace and behave in certain ways within society. So many of these limits need to be broken if we are to increase equality across the spectrum. Why should fathers be second class parents and when did it become the place for women to work 24/7, much of it un-rewarded?

Over the weekend, I was in Daylesford in regional Victoria for a food and wine festival at which my daughter, who is a chef, was presenting. Both my daughters are in food, and I am often approached by people and asked, so you must have been an amazing inspiration for them?

“Yes, I say. Both my daughters love wonderful food and delicious home cooked meals, and if they were going to get it they had to learn to cook.”

Home Ec was never a favourite of mine but I love to eat what my daughters prepare.

Capturing some of the Daylesford events for Instagram, Nicky (my daughter) and I both witnessed something that made our blood run cold. Two of the presenters were having trouble opening an ingredient and made a throwaway comment about girls in the kitchen and uselessness. Nicky, who had used the same ingredient and had no issue opening it, dug me in the ribs and whispered: “oh, I do hate that. Opening a jar is an individual’s problem and genderless. Now, it looks as if we’re all useless.”

I had to agree. Encompassing all girls in the kitchen with a throw-away line about whether or not someone can open a jar isn’t helpful. It certainly leads to endorsing all sorts of unfair stereotypes.

Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she will run for the Presidency has brought even more clangers out of the woodwork: “How can a woman who is 70 be President”. I do not remember Ronald Reagan ever suffering these comments.

And then there are the assumptions around women business owners and women who want to start businesses.

Women are risk adverse, I agree, but when did having a considered approach toward the responsibilities and implications of beginning a business and taking out a loan become a negative? Women, we know, are more likely to have a solid business plan, to have thought through their strategy and are far less likely to default on a loan. If you’re a lender and a business person that attitude makes sense.

I wonder if technology will help us all. It certainly forces us to do things differently and it has nothing to do with whether you are female or male.

Gender neutral in its interactions and outcomes - could we be seeing the beginnings of a level playing field through the uses of technology? We know from research we did on women and technology that women are three times more likely to use mobile banking than men, proving uptake in technology doesn’t favour gender. But we better get more girls into IT careers.

To finish on a note of hope, this is how Melvin Konner regards the future: “As women gain in influence,” he writes, “the world will become more democratic, more socially compassionate, more equal, less discriminatory, less sexually casual, and less pornographic.”

Bring it on, Hillary.

Larke Riemer With Hillary Clinton