BEN’S ZONE: Gender Equality, Bias and Why I Think Positive Discrimination is Vital

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Welcome to a weekly feature on my blog – Ben’s Zone. Written by husband… Ben. A foodie, coffee obsessed, ex-smoking, ex-drinking and Ridgeback loving Dad. Who is also seriously into his fitness.  You can find him on the blog (mostly) on Sundays. Enjoy!

Gender Equality, Bias and Why I Think Positive Discrimination is Vital

Gender Equality, Bias and Why I Think Positive Discrimination is Vital - scales with men and women symbols on each side

I’d always considered myself a feminist because, when I considered it, I thought women were quite good really, sometimes really quite good.  And that, to me, was what feminism meant.  Sometimes I did hear of a slightly troubling, ranty type feminism but I wrote that off as the voices of extremism and thought no more about it all.  It was enough, for me, that I would welcome women into my workplace and avoid obvious tropes such as women being poor drivers.  In my own eyes I was a truly reconstructed man.  Of course I wasn’t, I was an idiot, I hadn’t got a clue.  I didn’t have a clue really until my daughter was born and I found myself getting angry.  I’d been aware of gender pay gaps and glass ceilings but it hadn’t really connected with me until Aria came along.

When you look into the eyes of your children you see all the possibilities and dreams yet to come.  They could be astronauts, scientists, rock stars or great thinkers of their generation and while, yes this is true for Aria, statistically that kind of mega success is far more likely to come to my sons, because they’re dudes.  She could do exactly the same job as them, to the same standard and in most companies she’ll get paid less.  If she starts kicking off about that we’ll tut and roll our eyes just like we did when all those women at the BBC started making a fuss.  Even if she gets paid the same, there will be jobs she won’t get, because she might want to work flexibly or because she takes a career break to have children.  If someone told me I had to choose a career or my kids I’d ask them to do something anatomically impossible but yet, as it is now, this is what Aria can look forward to.  I stopped being angry and started being enraged.

But what could I do about it, personally?  I wasn’t sure, but given that I’m a middle class white dude in Western Europe if I’m powerless on this one then I don’t know what the answer could be given that I’m in probably the most privileged demographic on earth.  The first thing I did was to find out about my unconscious bias, so I found an online test that Harvard University were running.  The results were surprising.  I have a bias towards black people in the workplace, but a bias against women.  I felt really shocked, this was real news to me. Of course, everyone has unconscious bias.  At that level there’s no cognitive process involved so there’s no shame, but by knowing it’s there, we can consciously make decisions to work against those traits.  Once I knew what I was dealing with I started looking at what I could do to push back against this in my own life.  Recruitment was an easy one, I’m often involved in recruitment and so in two jobs have had the opportunity to design and implement process driven recruitment and, once you have a process you can audit it to remove bias.  Of course there are deeper concerns, where you find your candidates, which demographics have the skills you’re looking for and why not all of them do (maths and science in my role, and guess which gender does most of that?)

Once I’d found my biases and looked at what I could do in the workplace I realised I had only one thing left to contribute. As a man who’s never experienced sexism I can’t really understand it, but I can empathise and I do my best with that.  What I will not do is make impassioned speeches to Aria about how she can achieve anything she wants, that should just be a given and it should not be up to her to turn the tide, we, this generation should be doing that. No, I’m writing articles like this and annoying my mates by banging on until people either tune out or get the message that it’s the 21st century and this nonsense has gone on too long. And most important of all, I am talking to people about privilege and positive discrimination.

People find privilege troubling.  If you refer to someone as privileged they feel less than, they feel like you’ve denigrated their hard work by implying that they had an unfair advantage.  Well, you did work hard, I worked hard as it happens, I still do, but did I have an unfair advantage?  Undoubtedly.  All through my childhood every aspect of my experience showed me what I could achieve.  I saw people like me (white men) in every area I admired, from rock music through to science.  Women do not see that, the women who first took an X Ray of DNA, whose work proved fundamental in the discovery the structure of DNA was not even on the commemorative plaque, despite the protests of her male colleagues (all on the plaque) who acknowledged that she was instrumental in this crucial field of science.  Likewise women were involved but not acknowledged in the atom bomb, nuclear fission and pulsars.  Think of a woman scientist right now, call me psychic but I bet it’s Marie Curie isn’t it?  When we can’t even admit that these contributions were made, how can we argue that women in science are anything other than disadvantaged, and this is just one field.  Ultimately it comes down to one simple fact, if someone calling you privileged makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s because you are.

So, if we accept that the playing field is not level, what do we do?  Well, make it level of course, but is that enough?  No, and that is where positive discrimination comes in.  When you have a demographic that has been oppressed for years on end, it’s just not enough to say ‘ok, our bad, it’s fair now’ because there are years of imbalance to redress.  Years of TV adverts, schooling and societal pressure to turn back.  Just saying ‘chicks can do this too now’ won’t cut it.  The thought of positive discrimination (identifying a gap between your demographic and the demographic of the general popular and seeking actively to rebalance that) is unpalatable to most.  For a lot of people it goes against a fundamental sense of fairness they have and that does come from a nominally good place, but really, where was the fairness when the shoe was on the other foot?  Why is it that women will perform better in STEM subjects at school but are far less likely to pursue these at a higher level?  Because of prejudice and so it’s not just necessary to address things such as these directly, it is our moral responsibility to do so.

In the world we live in, with the knowledge and technology at our disposal we have the potential to be a truly egalitarian society but this is not something we can ever achieve unless we’re willing to identify and confront our unconscious bias and be active agents for change within the world we live in. 

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