Two clear cases of implicit gender bias that have me fuming

Issue 77 — December 9, 2018

My friend Dan Sager is a terrific supporter of Take The Lead and gender equality in general. The dad of two daughters, he proudly updates me on their accomplishments and sends me ideas and connections aimed at furthering Take The Lead’s success.

Dan texted this article to me a few days ago, knowing it would be of interest.

But he might not have realized why.

The article is about Colorado University Colorado Springs Professor Christopher Bell who seems to think he has discovered the lack of female superhero figures in pop culture. To be fair, the article reflects that there are other like-minded filmmakers working on this issue and cites the growing number of lead film characters are females and minorities, such as DC Comics’ , starring Gal Gadot, and Marvel’s series, now on Netflix. The article quoted Bell:

Reading this article raised the following questions for me. I’d love to know your thoughts on them:

1. Does it help or hurt when pop culture superheroes are largely female versions of male superheroes, or what male creators think female superheroes would be?

2. If women had created superheroes to start with, what would they be like? Would women even have created superheroes? Why or why not? The history of the superhero phenomenon illustrates that these characters are male creations and probably meet a particular need for which I have considerable empathy: society’s expectation that men will have hyperstrength, that men must be the protectors of us all.

Especially after the recent death of the iconic superhero creator Stan Lee whose fertile mind and pen spawned the likes of Spider-Man and Black Panther, I’m pondering those questions. But the more I think about them, the more something else about the article Dan sent me is sticking in my craw.

It’s the implicit bias looking us straight in the eye and not being seen.

It’s the same phenomenon that women often cite to me in examples like this: “If my husband picks up the kids at school, he’s a hero. If I pick them up, it’s just mom picking them up ho-hum.”

I can name at least 6 major academic and non-academic organizations founded by women that have done the research and publicly made the same points as Professor Bell for at a decade or more before his 2015 TED talk. They do TED talks and publish papers all the time.

Why did my friend notice this one about a solo male professor who is basically saying what Stacy Smith at the Annenberg Center, Geena Davis Institute, the Women’s Media Center, and others have said for over a decade?

Am I just being hypersensitive about a man taking credit for ideas originated by women? And more importantly, having that credit believed without critique?

Let’s face it. This is an example of the same implicit bias that makes resumés from people named Harry judged more favorably than resumés from people named Harriet.

Men are more often given jobs and promotions based on promotion; women on proven performance.

The same language is judged more favorably coming from a man than from a woman. Similarly, the same actions coming from a man may be judged less harshly coming from a man than from a woman.

I could go on.

Which leads to the second example of implicit bias that had my head spinning last week: the kerfluffle over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s role in the company’s current problems. The differential in the way she and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are being treated belies the classic leadership mantra of the CEO. “The buck stops here.”

Don’t get me wrong. Facebook has apparently taken action that deserves criticism. I wish the company had hired me to work with them on how to use controversy as a positive learning tool and a change agent (my Leadership Power Tool #4) because they have been less than forthcoming until forced to acknowledge the problems. Nevertheless I am outraged at the way pundits are using the occasion to pile negatives onto the Lean In movement started by Sandberg (listen up, folks, the tired old “women can’t have it all” canard has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether she is culpable for any misdeeds Facebook might have committed). Conversely, Zuckerberg has been virtually given a pass for delivering the same defensive messages as Sandberg.

Implicit bias is insidious. It lives in that grey area of not knowing what we don’t know. The unknown unknown.

The two cases of implicit bias that I’ve shared here are among those thousands of tiny paper cuts women endure and that really got my goat this week. If indeed we need a superhero(ine), it’s to smash these biases once and for all.

And the article that set me off? Aside from it showing yet another male getting noticed for work that women have done without the same level of notice or praise, it makes me think the superhero narrative as it is being applied to women is a function of implicit bias in itself.

While it is true that everyone needs and wants role models to boost our own courage and sense of possibilities, no one is in reality superhuman. So what we really need is more examples of regular humans accomplishing good things in and for the world

That’s why I’m inclined to agree with Gloria Steinem in this video when she says that the goal is to change the narrative rather than adapt to it.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.