#WakingTheFeminists: Unmasking Unconscious Bias

Like so many participants in the Twittersphere, I was completely overwhelmed by the incredible groundswell which enveloped social media and public discussion on foot of #WakingTheFeminists. It’s a narrative that has resonated deeply with huge swathes of the population – male and female, across professions and irrespective of location.

While #WakingTheFeminists originated from the Abbey Theatre’s recent “Waking the Nation” 2016 commemorative programme – and the distinct lack of female playwrights therein – this central issue has galvanised broader discussion and reopens long debated, shared themes permeating various strata of our society and economy.

It is frankly (to paraphrase Kate O’Toole) beyond belief , that we continue to encounter such poor representation of women in a variety of sectors – in 2015, women still account for a small percentage of political and other decision-making roles. These paltry figures are regularly quoted, and in the last five years have increased only marginally – in effect, change comes ‘dropping slow’.

#WakingTheFeminists however, has unearthed a particularly pertinent representation issue – and one which is sometimes so obvious, it is unseen. Having discussed it with friends and colleagues in recent weeks, many admitted to passively attending the theatre or watching film without being truly cognisant of the writer’s gender, the female characters narrative or persona. Could it be said that this admission points to yet another incidence of unconscious bias? That without realising it, we can all be accused of simply expecting things to appear a certain way? And in doing so, we are, in fact reinforcing the norms and stereotypes which have established themselves through time.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s research in the area of women in film and television is particularly stark –their “Gender Roles and Occupations” report unearths some fairly grim insights. Looking specifically at how women are represented in family and prime-time films, it is clear that this particular artform is very definitely imitating and reinforcing real stereotypical biases. Female characters are barely visible in leadership roles (between 3.4% and 14% depending on programming) and are similarly cast with less frequency as high-level politicians or doctors. Women are also less likely to be cast in STEM roles, according to the study.

The “Gender Roles and Occupations” report also points to stereotyping in more implicit ways – including the ownership of traditional domestic roles, and more worryingly, the appearance and clothing of characters. Indeed, Davis’s clarity is backlit by the less-scientific but equally illuminating ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, a witty cousin of the ‘Bechdel’ test. Both screen equality tests clearly delineate the failings of the film industry in their development of female characters – or what can be approximated roughly as unconscious gender bias.

Having recently worked on a pilot programme on this exact topic, there’s one clear parallel that can easily be drawn cross-sectorally – that is, while gender bias may wear a different costume, its effect is the same. Leaving stories untold, potential unrealised – only half the narrative visible.

What is most concerning in all areas of the wider gender equality discussion is the underlying tone which suggests that it’s all about the lack of women available – we’re not producing the work, we’re not qualified, we’re not suitably skilled, the list goes on. Now, even if that were true (and in every sense, it’s actually notpossible) – surely it’s in everyone’s interest to question why it’s the case?

I for one am particularly fed up of glib perspectives such as the long-peddled meritocracy argument – it’s well-documented that women outstrip male counterparts at Third Level – so assuming educational performance is a factor, why isn’t this reflected elsewhere?

Without going back through the annals of history – how our society has embedded norms, how our Constitution doesn’t serve women in more than one way – it should be clear to anyone with an even slight interest in the world around them that gender bias didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to be solved with uninformed ripostes. Gender bias is real, often unconscious, all-pervasive and needs society as a whole to tackle it.

Image courtesy of Broadsheet.ie

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© 2020 Olwen Dawe

Equality Policy Strategy
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