Politics

In spite of advances, gender bias still exists

We need more women in our government, at all levels, because it appears that most male-dominated fields, like the tech industry, seem to be breeding grounds for sexual discrimination and gender bias.

In 2015, a group of female tech investors and executives conducted a survey of two hundred senior-level women in Silicon Valley. Titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” the study demonstrated how intertwined, and how pervasive, these kinds of discrimination are. Eighty-four per cent of the participants reported that they had been told they were “too aggressive” in the office, sixty-six per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and sixty per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. A large majority of those advances came from a superior, and a third of the women said that they’d been worried about their personal safety. Almost forty per cent said that they didn’t report the incidents because they feared retaliation. “Men who demean, degrade or disrespect women have been able to operate with such impunity—not just in Hollywood, but in tech, venture capital, and other spaces where their influence and investment can make or break a career,” Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told me. “The asymmetry of power is ripe for abuse.”

This inhospitable climate is partly a result of tech’s hugely imbalanced gender ratio. Studies estimate that women make up only a quarter of employees and eleven per cent of executives in the industry. There have, of course, been other male-dominated fields notorious for similar behavior, including Wall Street and Madison Avenue. But part of what differentiates tech is the industry’s self-regard, as a realm of visionary futurists and tireless innovators who are making the world better.

Adrienne LaFrance, editor of TheAtlantic.com, studied her own technology reporting in 2013 and found that only 25 percent of the people she quoted or mentioned were women.

Of the 2,075 people I mentioned in 136 articles over the course of a year, about 25 percent were women. (We counted not just the number of women I named, but the number of times I mentioned them.) That put me on par with mainstream news media, generally. Internationally, about 24 percent of news subjects were female in 2013, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project.

Two years later, even after becoming aware of the absence of women in her work, her average had fallen to 22 percent.

All in all, I mentioned 736 different people and only 165 of them were women—meaning  women accounted for just over 22 percent of the unique individuals I named or quoted in my work last year. (If you look at total mentions instead of unique mentions, it’s even worse. Out of the 2,301 names that appeared in my work last year, 1,839 of them were men. That leaves just 428 mentions of women: under 19 percent of total mentions. This suggests, and we were later able to confirm, that even when I do mention women, I give men more space in my stories.)

But it is not just the tech field where the gender bias holds back women. It has long been a problem for women’s health care, as most medical research on disease and treatment has been done on men alone.

The male bias in medical knowledge starts with basic, pre-clinical research, which uses cells or animal models to establish the safety of potential drugs. Sometimes, as in pain research, more than 70 per cent of studies used only males as research subjects. It is therefore hardly surprising that when, between 1997 and 2000, 10 prescription drugs were withdrawn from the US market, eight were judged to be more dangerous to women than men. The toxicity models used in testing were clearly lacking safety information relevant for women.

I don’t know that there is a connection, but women are woefully under-represented in most scientific fields:

Examining publication data spanning 20 years and 27 subject areas, Elsevier and its partners revealed significant gender differences among global researchers. In the US, for example, women make up 40 percent of researchers across disciplines but represent only 20 percent of all researchers in the fields of energy, engineering, mathematics, physics and astronomy. Women are less likely to publish their work or collaborate internationally than men, and are under-represented among inventors.

Politics are central to our lives, although it is unlikely that the average American is aware of just how central they are. Our government can determine who is educated, and how well; who receives health care and how good that health care is; what our retirement will be and how hungry children are when they go to sleep at night. Politics is how we decide what our government will be. 

Democrats are supposed to make up the party which gives a damn about how women are treated in all areas of our society. It is up to us to make sure that each woman is given an equal opportunity to reach her highest potential. By and large, we have tried to do so, to a far greater extent than our political rivals. We are the party that wants to make the world a better place, not unlike the members of the tech industry.

But part of what differentiates tech is the industry’s self-regard, as a realm of visionary futurists and tireless innovators who are making the world better.

The desire to make a better world does not preclude the unconscious gender bias that minimizes women and their contributions, even among Democrats of the most liberal stripe. This unconscious bias is revealed in the way some men feel entitled to dominate conversations, and to ignore or interrupt women within their group. 

I watched it happen earlier this month at Netroots Nation in New Orleans. Perhaps because we have done such a good job at providing opportunities for women, and because we are progressive in the best sense of that word, when gender bias does appear among us it is all the more striking. So please, guys, fellow progressives and/or liberals: stop interrupting us. Please stop talking over us. Please stop making us invisible. We count. We vote. We are a part of the team.

It was strange to see it at the conference—which means that of course, not all men do it. But if you are not doing it, you could help to stop it. Women who interrupt their interrupter or complain tend to be considered bitchy, no matter how politely we express our concerns. A man can say, “Hey Joe, how about we let Sally finish making her point?” and not be criticized for it. And perhaps that gentle reminder would give the interrupter the opportunity to consider the impact of his behavior.

The only way to end unconscious gender bias is to become aware of it. Back in the day, we resisted the use of the term “girl” to describe an adult female because it placed an unconscious image of a child in the mind of the speaker and the listener. It was only after being made aware of it that the usage declined. Perhaps becoming aware of our unconscious gender bias can help make it, too, a relic of the past.

Yeah, no, that probably won’t happen—but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


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