Gender Bias: Are You Aware Of Yours?


Just When You Think You’re Enlightened

Now backpedaling in an almost comic retreat, officials of South By Southwest (SXSW) triggered a storm of controversy when they canceled two panels relative to online harassment such as the GamerGate community is infamous for. Amid searing criticism and cancellations by would-be SXSW-goers, SXSW Interactive chief Hugh Forrest issued an apology Friday, conceding that the conference did the wrong thing.

He is announcing a full-day “Online Harassment Summit” for the 12th of March.

In his post—headlined with no reference to the bungle that produced it—the beleaguered Forrest writes:

Earlier this week we made a mistake. By cancelling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry…It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address.

Of course, it was hardly so “clear” to Forrest and his team initially that the issue “requires more than two panel discussions to address.” Having been seen by many to have caved to the threats of the harassment camp, Forrest’s administration now is hard-pressed to prove its allegiance to forthright discussion, even in the face of perceived hostility. He writes:

Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying. It is a menace that has often resulted in real world violence; the spread of discrimination; increased mental health issues and self-inflicted physical harm.

In what might be seen by some as a fig leaf, Forrest resurfaces the “safety” concern that accompanied the cancellation, but he and his team now seem to have understood the profound blowback that greeted their initial reactions.

SXSW strives to bring a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016.

It’s unclear that the conference’s effort to regain its poise will be successful.

Nick Wingfield at The New York Times has quoted Giant Spacekat development lead Brianna Wu’s tweet, likely saying what many feel: “I’m not going to tell you this erases the terrible path @sxsw took getting here.”

The gaffe was seen as evidence of bad faith with many in the community that the organization serves. Such a major misstep undermines a constituency’s faith. If they could walk into this wall, why not the next one, or the next one?

And such essays as Arthur Chu’s piece at The Daily Beast, This Is Not A Game: How SXSW Turned GamerGate Abuse Into A Spectator Sport, paint a damning picture of apparent arrogance at SXSW, negligence, unresponsiveness. Forrest and his folks need to address these points, not just the question of panels and “summits.”

Of course, SXSW’s pratfall was unintentional. It’s foolhardy to jeopardize the viability of such an avidly attended annual enterprise by sauntering without more caution through such explosive themes as the online tension in the tech world around pitched battles there for gender parity. But these issues must be addressed and the climb-down that SXSW that Forrest has attempted suggests that they didn’t know what they were getting into.

And it’s often at great distances from such flash points in Austin that you see some of the most interesting ramifications.

An instance of this has played out in the last two days in a private publishing-industry list-serv, as responses to the SXSW scenario quickly evoked some difficult and wonderfully instructive exchanges among the participants.

A Question Of Complicity

The email chain I’m referring to has as a policy, and a good one, forbidding journalists to quote comments with names attached without first getting the commenters’ approval. And so where I use a name here, know that I have received permission from that person to quote them.

What developed in nearly 100 mails exchanged there this week has been a picture of how alien—or worse, non-existent— gender-bias issues can look from different perspectives, and how unconscious we all can be of our own bone-deep assumptions. They can form an unrecognized context that only darkens when examined closely.

“Rare is the man who absorbs my end of a conversation. Or who even acknowledges that there is a conversation. How can so many men not hear the sound of voices that are not their own?”
Laura Dawson

The exercise gives us all a chance here to think about complicity in two ways when it comes to sexism.

In several instances over the years, I have written about what I characterize as “the stupid oppression of women by men over millennia.” I call this oppression “stupid” carefully and seriously because I believe that it is indefensible:

  • Indefensible in terms of its damage to women,
  • Self-destructive in its damage to men and how they feel about themselves , and
  • Avoidable: we don’t have to be this way with each other.

In the course of the opening discussion of online sexist harrasment of women in online tech settings, Laura Dawson—a hugely respected metadata specialist in publishing and a good friend to many of us in the industry—took the conversation beyond the gamers and gates and walked it right into our homes and offices.

Clearly writing with heartfelt conviction—and, with her permission, I’ll quote her in full so as not to risk unintentionally coloring her comment—Dawson wrote:

As a woman, fundamentally, before I am either a technologist, consumer, or player of games …I have found such behavior everywhere. Including in my own home. For all my life. From men I have worked with, men I have side-eyed, men I have embraced, and men I have loved. From the time I could speak until this very day when I was told to pipe down. From my father, my brother, my husband, my lovers – rare is the man who absorbs my end of a conversation. Or who even acknowledges that there is a conversation. How can so many men not hear the sound of voices that are not their own?

Speech is sedition. While this thread was beginning to circulate, I was in a car listening to this:  And the author stated that girls and women are the pioneers of language – for a reason. Because certain things must be expressed, especially when that expression is frowned upon.

These are not churls. These are men. Everyday men. Everywhere men. Some of these men might be under your own roof right this minute.

Perhaps #notallmen. But the ones who don’t publicly, constantly, loudly call others out on this are complicit.

Considerable tension was present in some of the ensuing exchanges. Dawson’s call was insistent when male members of the group asked how they could be considered complicit in what is often called “everyday sexism” when they, in fact, believe themselves to be highly conscious of the equal value of women to men. Most of the guys on this list are professionals whose careers involve literature and publication in one way or another. I think it’s fare to say that most of them think of themselves as aligned with feminist principles of equal rights, pay, stance, place, and value for women and men.

Dawson’s answers were more questions, in the context of discriminatory behavior against women:

Are you speaking out? Are you doing anything about this?

This seemed to come across as a litmus test to some of the men reading Dawson’s comments, as if she had demanded, “Have you decked a misogynist today?” At one point, she clarified that she wasn’t talking about marching in the streets:

I am not suggesting that all men campaign.

I am simply saying that those who do not constantly, when confronted with an instance, slap that behavior down publicly and loudly – are part of the problem.

Another commenter later in the thread would go further and make a special request that men call out sexist assumption and behavior in all-male settings where it can be easy to let it slide, bro.

Dawson’s proposal is that if a man sees discriminatory behavior in other men and doesn’t challenge that behavior for what it is, guy to guy, then that man is partly responsible for the behavior he hasn’t questioned.

This was challenged repeatedly by at least one list member, a guy who took what appeared to be serious issue with the assumption that the failure to counter another’s sexism makes any of us as wrong as the original perpetrator.

“There is a very well established evidence base for an unconscious bias against women that all people suffer. Including women. Including women who are aware of and working on the problem of sexism. So unfortunately, it is all men, and it’s all women too, who are unconsciously biased against women.”
Suw Charman-Anderson

What wasn’t dealt  with in the list’s context is that these can be anything but comfortable concerns between men. Calling out your friends or colleagues on issues of gender bias may be the right thing to do, indeed, but many would like to come to that conclusion themselves. Having it demanded of them, along with an assumption of failure if they don’t comply, isn’t going to sit well with all people, male or female.

And building on the groundwork that Dawson faithfully, forcefully had built over many emails, the most interesting phase of the discussion came as members began to discuss how frequently we—both women and men—don’t even recognize inappropriate behavior in ourselves and others because our cultural context has made it invisible to us.

“‘Being Not Sexist’ Isn’t Quite Enough”

Suw Charman-Anderson—whose permission to quote I’ve also secured—wrote of her experience in running the Ada Lovelace Day organization, a celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I recommend you read these comments, like Dawson’s, in full:

The biggest problem that we face is that there is a very well established evidence base for an unconscious bias against women that all people suffer. Including women. Including women who are aware of and working on the problem of sexism. So unfortunately, it is all men, and it’s all women too, who are unconsciously biased against women. Even if you are consciously aware of sexism and know to your very core that you are not sexist, that you support women and do not discriminate, I’m afraid to say that your unconscious bias is letting you down.

Now, that’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the system and culture that we grow up with. It’s the fault of a culture that discriminates between boys and girls even before they are born: Parents talk differently to babies in the womb if they know that they are going to have a girl or a boy.

These are strong tides to swim against, which is why simply “being not sexist” isn’t actually quite enough. We all, men and women, have to become more aware about how we are judging women more harshly than men, be aware of how this built-in unconscious bias works, and put in place processes to counteract it. Gender discrimination is universal, no matter how much we wish it weren’t.

Inequality, Charman-Anderson said she has discovered, “is still seen as a woman’s problem, for women to solve.”

And in some of this exchange’s best and most practical moments, Charman-Anderson listed some of the things that can be done in the workplace to pick up on—and respond to —elements and signals of sexist behavior that often are overlooked.

This is a long list and well worth carrying fully. To make it more comfortable to read, I’m going to refrain from putting it into block quotes. I’ll start it and end it with a sub-headline.

Charman-Anderson’s Points For Gender-Bias-Aware Colleagues

  • When you’re in a meeting, and a woman is speaking, make sure she gets to finish what she is saying. If she’s interrupted, ask the interrupter to let her finish.
  • As an exercise, count how many times a woman is interrupted compared to a man. It’s instructive!
  • Make sure women are invited to the meetings that they ought to be at — it sounds daft, but actually, a good way to hold a woman back in the workplace is to deprive her of information and agency, and some people do do this by not inviting women to meetings they ought to be at. Ditto with email.
  • If there are women who are silent, whom you think might really be itching to say something, ask them their opinion. Maybe even ask everyone who’s silent so that everyone gets a chance to speak.
  • If a man repeats a woman’s point, credit it to her.

If you’re in a position to do hiring, there’s a whole bunch of stuff to do that’s important:

  • Have a diverse hiring panel – diversity encourages diversity.
  • Blind your application process, so no names or identifying characteristics on CV.
  • Ensure diversity in shortlists – if your shortlist isn’t diverse, go away and try again.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of believing your company is a meritocracy. Unconscious biases ensure that meritocracies don’t exist in reality.
  • Make sure that your job ads are gender neutral in language, so don’t use masculine language or focus on what someone does, focus on what kind of person you’re looking for (there’s research girls respond better to adjectives than verbs, and no reason to think women don’t too).
  • Don’t ask applicants for their last salary: Women start off earning less, and basing their new salary on their old salary just perpetuates the inequality
  • Don’t offer a salary range: Women are likely to end up being awarded lower salaries than men. Just decide what this job is worth and stick to it.
  • Be careful how you structure your promotion and pay rise decisions: Are you unconsciously promoting more men than women, or giving bigger bonuses or pay rises to men than women?
  • Collect data. If you have data, you can spot problems and make changes.

If you’re in editorial:

  • Are you commissioning as many books by women as men? If not, why not? (And “There aren’t any women” isn’t an acceptable answer, ditto for men in female-dominated areas!)
  • Do your fiction books feature as many women protagonists as men?
  • Are women characters written well? (This is a major, major issue in male-dominated areas in fiction.)
  • Are you sending as many books by women to reviewers and critics, and entering them for prizes and awards?
  • Are you sending as many books to female reviewers and critics as male?
  • If you’re commissioning forewords, blurbs etc., are you getting as many from women as from men?
  • Again, collect data. If you have data, you can spot problems and make changes.

If you are a public speaker:

  • If you’re a woman and you can’t accept an invitation for whatever reason, can you suggest another woman?
  • If you’re a man, ask if the panel/conference will have parity, and suggest a woman to speak in your stead if the line-up is all male or heavily male.
  • If you’re organising, do you have equal numbers of women and men? Especially doing keynotes. (This is also important for men in areas dominated by women, eg romance and children’s literature)
  • Women often have domestic responsibilities that men don’t, which can limit travel and attendance to events outside of the working day, so do you have a strategy to allow for that?
  • Tech conferences – even professional conferences – are increasingly instituting acceptable behavior policies. Does your conference need one too?

And Are We Even Noticing?

One of the most powerful commentaries at The Bookseller in London this year has come from one of my colleagues here, our acting books editor Cathy Rentzenbrink.

In the case of her essay, On Noticing, her concern was triggered by major literary prizes the shortlists of which had few if any women authors on them. But she widened her observations to other parts of life in which, as was discussed in many posts at the list-serv, men listen to men more than women in groups, interrupt women, take the advice of men over that of women, routinely unconsciously.

“Can you think about that for a moment, please, men reading this? Can you imagine what it feels like for it to be fairly continuously drip fed to you that your achievements are not important compared to looking after the men you live with and that you are not in charge of your own economic destiny?”
Cathy Rentzenbrink

Rentzenbrink wrote, in part:

I don’t know why that surprises us. Women have only been considered intellectually capable of voting for 100 years, it wasn’t that long ago that we could be shut up in asylums if we inconvenienced our menfolk. Those people who come to your door to get you to change your electricity are trained to talk to the decision maker and told that that will always be the man.

Remember that tweet from the FA about how the England women’s football team having won their bronze medal could now go back to being mothers, partners and daughters?

My husband has never once been asked about his childcare arrangements but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘what have you done with your child?’ when I’ve been out late at night or even, horrors, abroad.

I’ve been touring with my book a lot over the last few weeks – I’m typing this from a hotel room in Cheltenham – and people ask me a lot about how my husband and son are coping without me. I suspect male authors are not being asked the same questions or being told to be grateful that their wives are capable of working the dishwasher.

Take a look around you in a restaurant. Note how the male waiter will interrupt a table of women, but a female waiter will hover respectfully until the men have finished their anecdotes and are ready to order.

I bought two pairs of (cheap) shoes recently and the male shop assistant asked if I’d get in trouble with my husband. It’s almost funny but can you think about that for a moment, please, men reading this? Can you imagine what it feels like for it to be fairly continuously drip fed to you that your achievements are not important compared to looking after the men you live with and that you are not in charge of your own economic destiny?

I’ve invited Rentzenbrink to speak on our “Allied Interests” panel The Bookseller’s Author Day issues conference on 30th November in London. What she has to say is important, and she says it well.

But what we all have to say is important in this arena.

Listening Widely

Such an easy mistake, we can’t let ourselves think of women as monolithic on these issues. The list-serv had one female member, for example, who felt that some of what others in the conversation were doing was the wrong approach. That member wrote:

I am a woman who was not raised with money or connections, who has worked for everything she has, and who has never been supported by a man, but I am not in agreement with the current doctrine being promoted here. I’m probably with the “defensive” men on the list, and am not going to discuss it here because I’m doing something more constructive: writing a book about women and the pursuit of power.

And for my own part, what I’ve left out–no doubt in part as a response to biases of my own–will frustrate some, of course.

I know that my own proclivities cause me to worry most about how sexism affects men, makes them lesser people. This is no lack of concern for women, by any means. But for me, it’s a more accessible way into the debate: men suffer with the darkening effects of this legacy of hegemony. They endure unending blame for the sins of their fathers. They strain to see their own beauty and can’t find it. This, too, counts.

I agree with some on the list who noted that things are a lot better than they have been. But, boy, do we have a long way to go. We have to keep at it. Here in this sometimes painful discussion was something good coming out of the SXSW mess, well worth pursuing.

The going gets unpleasant at times but we simply must keep going. Better, keep coming: closer to each other.