Why Girls?

Much of my life I did not think about gender issues. I took to heart the teaching in school that all are created equal. At some point after reuniting with family from Viet Nam and getting married, I discovered I didn’t share the traditional values of any of my families with respect to the role of a female in society. These included the belief that girls are not as valuable as boys; the belief that women should be “inside” taking care of the home versus “outside” making sense of and dealing with the world; and the belief that women are weak and need men’s protection.

I rebelled, and in the process realized that my family hadn’t a clue what I was rebelling against, or even that I was rebelling.

Girls Innovate! is my continued rebellion, though it is less about my family and more about trying to understand beliefs that we as humans have carried and passed on over many generations, that are now at odds with modern ideals of fairness, potential and the human capacity to transcend baser instincts.

A couple years ago, I heard a story by a scientist named Janet Crawford who helped organize a global innovation conference. Crawford specialized in understanding brain science that could explain the dearth of women in leadership positions. Speaking on research she had conducted, Crawford described how men who claim that they believe in gender equality nevertheless treat women differently because they are driven by subconscious beliefs of women’s inferiority and/or male superiority. These men are biased against women without realizing it. As an example of the insidiousness of subconscious bias, Crawford shared how she conducted a self-analysis of her personal biases and discovered that she was biased against people of color – something she was not aware of until then.

In a video teaching entitled “Psychology is the Study of Innate Compassion,” Professor Paul Bloom (Yale University) contemplated compassion, racism, and sexism. (Transcribed text provided by Big Think.)

“There seems to be some sort of impulse in us that’s altruistic, that’s kind, that’s compassionate. … In all of these cases, however, the kindness that we see seems to apply to people who are close to us, who are either physically in our proximity or who are our siblings or our parents or our friends.

So the question arises, how broad does this compassion extend? Now some people would argue that we start off with a very broad compassion, we would extend it to all individuals, to all people. But there’s evidence [to] support a somewhat different view, which is, there’s a moral instinct in us, there’s a moral sense in us, but it’s initially very narrow. It’s only created by those close to us. And our feelings towards others are in fact, not positive at all, they aren’t compassionate at all. In fact, our natural default feelings towards a stranger, far from being compassionate, is actually some sort of mixture of fear and hatred.”

None of us would want to acknowledge that our default feelings towards strangers are fear and hatred, so if they are, they exist in our subconscious.

“What’s interesting, and perhaps troubling, is that there’s more to our minds than the conscious mind. We also have an unconscious system that also thinks in terms of categories, that also thinks in terms of stereotypes. This unconscious system is prone to tremendous bias and it is a lot less sensitive to our moral concerns than the conscious system. … Consciously, we’re egalitarian, consciously we’re non-prejudice, [yet] we have these weird, quirky unconscious biases that drive our behavior when pressing buttons and responding very fast. What difference does it make? There’s evidence that these unconscious biases play a role in things that matter very much in the real world.”

Take, for instance, the percentage of women who voted for Trump (42%), despite his open aggression towards and condescension of women. In an article entitled “Why Did Women Vote for Trump?”, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore answered the question as follows: because misogyny is not a male-only attribute. She quoted American satirist HL Mencken who defined a misogynist as “a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.” That statement may shock, at first, but if one views it through the lens of subconscious bias, it starts to make sense. Over thousands of years, in a patriarchal society, women were (and still are, apparently) competing against each other for the best male who could ensure their status and survival and that of their offspring.

Bloom continued:

“So, we’re at war with ourselves. We have on the one hand these conscious beliefs about how we think we should think, how we think we should behave. On the other hand, we have this unconscious system that makes all these sorts of decisions and affects us in ways that we might not know about, [that] we might not be aware of. The good news is we’re also smart. And part of being smart means that we can structure our world so that we can make it that unconscious biases matter less. If we want them to matter less, we can organize things so that they do matter less.”

Bloom shared a story of how symphony orchestras, historically male-dominant, made a concerted effort to remove triggers that subconsciously biased women.

“Not too long ago, women were deeply underrepresented in symphony orchestras. And the reason for this, it was argued, is because they don’t play as well. They simply, in a fair and biased fashion, they’d been judged and they just don’t sound as good. But in part, based on these sorts of discoveries, symphony orchestras began to hold blind auditions. What they would do is they would have the person play behind a screen so that the person listen… so that the judges won’t know if they are listening to a man or to a woman.  Once this was put into place, the representation of women in symphony orchestras shot up.

It wasn’t that originally these were just sexist, to say, I don’t like women, I’m going to count against them. Rather, these were perhaps good, non-sexist people, who couldn’t help hearing the woman differently from the man. And so when you adjust environment, it allows them to apply a fair standard, a sort of standard that they would want to apply.  And I like this example because it shows how first, social psychology and psychology in general can shape policy in a good way.”

One way to look at what’s happening in our country right now is that we have allowed our unconscious biases to take over. Instead of organizing our society to make subconscious biases matter less, these biases have been exploited and made to matter more.

This Saturday, my daughter, Elinor, and I are marching in the Women’s March in San Francisco. We care about many things, including women’s rights and gender equality, but I’ve come to believe that none of these things will see the full light of day – and in fact the relentless pursuit of them without understanding the triggers and creatively, courageously, and compassionately addressing them – will result in a backlash, as we have seen vis-a-vis the election results. Elinor and I will march for greater understanding of human consciousness and awareness of how our minds work, particularly at the subconscious level; for greater capacity to access the parts of our brain that can handle and process complexity, uncertainty and discomfort; and for greater ability to help kids develop self-awareness, reflective thought, curiosity, creativity, courage and compassion.

If you’d like to join us, please let me know, or find an event close to you. The following passage from a Medium article was helpful for me in considering to bring my 13-year-old to this march:

“If you have not yet taken your teen to a rally in her lifetime, there is no better time to do it. Teens are that much closer to voting age and, one day, we will turn everything over to them. Learning to peacefully protest and make our voices heard is as important as the act of voting itself. Teens are powerful and they are seeking a way to be a part of community. Creating opportunities for them to positively participate and connect with community makes it that much more likely that they will continue to grow into adults who are invested in our society.”

On February 25, 2017, I encourage you to attend a screening hosted by Girls Innovate! of the documentary “Cracking the Codes: the System of Racial Inequity.” This film was instrumental in helping me – and Elinor – better understand subconscious bias and the structural and institutional forces of society (interpersonal, cultural, educational, economic and political) that have the ability to bring out the worst in us – or the best. RSVP HERE. (Redwood City Library, 2/25/17, 2pm)

Lastly, why girls? Girls grow up to be women, and women carry and pass on what we believe to be right. That’s a power already in front of us.


image by Unsplash