On International Women’s Day, the Liberal Minister for Women and Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, wrote an article in The Age saying that’ another barrier (to women’s equal participation in the workforce) that until recently was widely misunderstood is unconscious gender bias’. It is just the second time I recall seeing ‘unconscious bias’ in print; I’ve yet to read that concept explored, analysed and critiqued so we can firstly, acknowledge IT does exist and secondly, begin to transcend the consequences of its reality in our society. I did pen a letter to the editor about it but surprise, surprise, it wasn’t published, and in that letter, I suggested we needed to ‘understand’ the basis for the misunderstanding of that ‘unconscious bias’. Why is it ‘misunderstood? Is it because most people are psychologically ignorant and unaware of their innate, unconscious psychological prohibitions they covertly ‘impose’ on our social milieu, or is it that they aren’t interested in why they think (and/or assume) what they think. For example, one man who worked as executive producer at Thames TV in London where I worked in the mid 70s and whose program I had been unsuccessfully wanting a job on for about four years previously, told me, via my then immediate producer/boss on the program I worked on, that he had made a ‘mistake’ about me, the innuendo was that there was a job on his program in the not too distant future. But why had he made a mistake? He had never read any of my letters of job application (they were read by his secretary to be tossed out or shown to him; mine never were I learned from her several years later) and he had interviewed me once only for a job but dismissed my answer to his question before I had finished talking without even bothering to listen to me at all. Moreover, he refused to answer my questions to him. The reality I realised later was his ‘unconscious bias’, based on supposition not fact (he didn’t know anything about my work background I later learned too) and I’m sure he never bothered to think for one moment about the basis for his mistake. I also suggest that maybe if some people are indeed cognisant about what ‘unconscious bias’ really means, they are unwilling to confront that ‘bias’ because it’s too threatening to their vested interests, power, control and prestige. Embracing and appreciating women as genuine intellectual equals deserving of the same respect and dignity they accord to other men may just be too disturbing, frightening and uncomfortable for these men; who function and live maintaining the status quo with women as subservient, second-class servants in our society, attending to their demands and desires by sacrificing their own individual needs and wants. I do believe women are complicit in permitting, even excusing men, and our society, to allow their ‘unconscious bias’ to flourish without challenge and confrontation, because it also involves women having to understand their own unconscious bias about what they actually want, need and expect from men. Too often, they don’t believe they are intellectual equals of men; they marry these men and put them on pedestals ‘unconsciously’ kow-towing to their superior status and prestige. Moreover too many men talk the talk about women as intellectual equals, but are unable to walk the talk when they are ‘pushed’ to confront their own talk. I say this out of my own personal experience; of male boyfriends and friends and particularly male shrinks and psychologists. When I’ve ‘confronted’ them, sometimes blatantly but mostly covertly and carefully, I’m not listened to, disrespected for my opinions and ideas and dismissed as a ‘mad feminist’, dyke, or just plain psycho. It is an issue I’ve written about ad nauseum in my blogs, and sadly, it’s not just men who seem reluctant to unravel their ‘unconscious bias’ about women, but women also subvert their unconscious bias towards women, too, as they also do about men as well. Moreover, this unconscious bias is not just a gender issue, but is significant in the prejudice, bigotry and discrimination that pertains to issues about race, religion, age and disability et al. One of the underlying problems with unconscious bias is that to make it ‘conscious’ in our society, is just too revolutionary for both genders to contemplate; too often instead, we skirt around the quintessential issue of it by talking about pay inequalities and lack of opportunities for women etc but without exploring the bottom line of why these gender discrepancies actually exist. For example, do women actually want to work as some men do with long hours and late nights, do they put their families and children first before career commitments and moreover, are they actually DOING the same work as their male colleagues? I also know from personal experience that many men too don’t want to put in long hours and late nights, but often their remuneration for the work they do can exceed that of women who similarly choose a less work-demanding lifestyle. It is a complex issue, and not just about gender. It is too often unconscious bias that still perceives men as irrationally more valuable and worthwhile in the workplace that women which affects all of us and until we can make that conscious and really engage in a public discourse about its basis it will continue to be ‘misunderstood’ because it will continue to remain shrouded in silence. It’s a simplistic bandaid solution for symptoms without any analysis of the causes; be it in the medical profession (as I know only too well), education, families of all socio-economic classes and business et al. It does still sadden me that no one seems willing to tackle the issue; it is still ‘widely misunderstood’ as far as I’m concerned because it is not being addressed; neither are its consequences; certainly not on a human and individual level. In domestic violence arenas for example, it is still men ‘copping’ all the blame; the unconscious bias of women about their expectations and demands of men go unwritten about and unexplored; and too often, ‘inherited’ from their mothers, grandmothers etc who have also participated in unrealistic expectations of the men in their lives due to their own ‘unconscious bias’ too. Men are indeed culpable, but women must also confront their ‘role’ in relationships. It’s not about apportioning blame, but the unconscious bias residing in all our psyches is a result of centuries of ‘social conditioning’ about not just gender, but so many issues we seem reluctant to face rationally and logically. It is somewhat heartening to at least read ‘unconscious bias’ in the media; but how long will it be before we confront it openly to pull it apart and ensure we no longer let that bias dictate not just our own destiny, but that of others; based on nothing more than superficial assumptions and preconceived perceptions that too often demean us intellectually and even more tragically, proscribe how we should feel. The reality for me has been depressing; just take a pill and hey presto – you’re ‘well’; when society’s ills remain just as sickening as they’ve ever been, distorting our aspirations if we dare defy the socially-accepted norms of being female and/or too, male.
Cash also writes about ‘boosting women’s workforce participation is not just about our nation’s bottom line. It is about empowering men and women to make the choices they want, rather than the choices they feel they have to make because of cultural, structural and institutional barriers.’ Indeed, except that I always was ‘empowered’ to do what I wanted in defiance of family and friends, only to ‘suffer’ labels of being delusional and disturbed because what I wanted was ‘perceived’ (albeit by unconscious bias’) as beyond female capacity. Certainly at least my capacity even though my work and academic record reflect both a really bright mind, imagination and diligence, and a capacity for hard work and tenacity. I was damn good at all my jobs, but to my female family and so-called friends, I had delusions of grandeur and to the shrinks, I was disturbed. Unemployment never made sense to me and I had every sane reason to be angry, frustrated and hostile to those people who just put me down. I realised many years ago about their ‘unconscious bias’; I know the socio-economic consequences are huge; both individually and socially, and it’s not just about ‘empowering’ men and women to make the choices they want but to create environs whereby they can make those choices without ‘punishment’ for their ambitions and dreams as well as ensuring those choices can be implemented in the society in which they live. It’s about men and women understanding ‘unconscious bias’ on a broad and pervasive spectrum, still being reinforced in families and cultures where men sadly are still championed as the breadwinner and women take second-place as homemakers, mothers and part-time workers. Making the choices I wanted was easy; I knew what I wanted to do, but others reactions to my choices ensured I was denied fulfilment of living them out. No one actually bothered to ask me as I got older what I really wanted to do, just assuming from some past memory of conversations long since dead. The reality of course is that I was forced to make ‘choices’ I didn’t really want; not through cultural, structural or institutional barriers, but simply because of the lack of opportunities I confronted. Financial survival took precedence over what my wants, and more importantly, my intellectual needs were. Thankfully now, I don’t have to make those choices anymore or deal with much ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace or with medicos or anyone who denies my intelligence or abilities; I am my own boss to look after myself and answer to no one but myself and that is one choice I can actually live with, and live well with. It’s all relative and I can only hope that some writer will one day confront and challenge in print the concept of ‘unconscious bias’ so our society can ‘tear it to shreds’ and render it irrelevant and immaterial in the long road ahead for genuine gender equal opportunity.