Battling Gender Bias

Edith Sand and Victor Lavy of Tel Aviv University conducted a study about unconscious gender bias in teachers grading elementary students. They concluded that teachers, who obviously know the gender of their students, give lower grades to girls and higher grades to boys than outside graders who do not know the gender of those they are grading. According to the study, these biases influenced students through high school—girls were less likely to pursue mathematics than boys. Students with equally educated parents were not as affected by the bias, but students with fathers that were more educated than their mothers fell into the bias. Sand and Lavy asserted that this was an unconscious bias because most teachers in the study were female and did not seem to act in animosity toward girls.

Lt. Col. Kate Germano noticed bias toward women in training for the Marines, arguing that women are less respected and have less confidence than men because there are lower expectations for women in training. According to Germano, accountability standards are often more lax for women, which causes men to devalue women’s contributions. Arguing that women should be given the same expectations as men, she asserts, “The truth is that when female recruits are held to higher standards, they rise to the occasion.” Her final message is that gender biases in the Marines will continue to exist as long as there are substandard expectations for women: “Until every leader demands the best from our recruits and Marines regardless of gender and the Institution truly considers the benefits of a more integrated approach to boot camp, it will continue to be an insult to “train like a girl.’”

It’s not just women who are facing difficulty overcoming gender stereotypes as they pursue their ambitions. Claire Cain Miller reported that millennial men have a difficult time trying to balance the workplace and having more involvement in the home. Miller cites a study from the Families and Work Institute, which reports that 35% of millennial men without children believe in traditional roles for mothers and fathers, while 53% of working millennial men with children believe in traditional roles in the home. Miller suggests that this could be because of the culture of the workplace; the workplace favors maternity leave and flexible work schedules for mothers because they are perceived as primary caregivers and devalues those benefits for fathers, making it difficult for men to be more involved with caretaking while maintaining a work schedule.

In each of these examples, unconscious and conscious bias affect how women and men are perceived and treated in roles that have been stereotypically gendered. The root of these biases is difficult to trace, as Dr. Michael Kimmel discovered while teaching about masculinity. Dr. Kimmel has founded a Center for the Study of Masculinities at Stony Brook University, where he will also be implementing a master’s program in masculinities studies. In the class, he asked students to list characteristics of what makes a good man. Students answered with the following responses as reported by Jessica Bennett: “caring,” “putting others’ needs before yours” “honest.” When Kimmel asked them what it means to be a real man, he got quite different responses: “take charge; be authoritative”; “take risks”; “it means suppressing any kind of weakness”; “walk like a man. Never cry.” Bennett then writes: “Dr. Kimmel had been taking notes. ‘Now you’re in the wheelhouse,’ he said, excitedly. He pointed to the Good Man list on the left side of the board, then to the Real Man list he’d added to the right. ‘Look at the disparity. I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.’” This is a thought provoking exercise to start understanding how perceptions of masculinity and femininity affect behavior.

Such a list seemed familiar to me, because I had contributed to the same type of list in a Bible as Literature class taught by Steven Walker, now Professor Emeritus, at Brigham Young University when I was an undergraduate student. As a class, we came up with a list of characteristics, sometimes present through actions, of God from the scriptures. This list included some of the following: love (1 John 4:16); savior (Psalms 68:20); wise (1 Cor. 1:21); great, mighty, and terrible (Deut. 10:17); fair in judgment (Deut. 10:17); does not seek reward (Deut. 10:17); generous (John 11:22); righteous and good (Psalms 10:4); healer (Gen. 20:17); merciful (136:2); offers strength and power to His people (Psalms 68:35); judger (Psalms 7:11); angry at wickedness (Psalms 7:11); great king (Psalms 95:3); rock and redeemer (Psalms 78:35); doer of good (3 John 1:11); granter of grace (1 Cor. 1:4); steward (Rev. 21:3); supporter of righteousness (Exod. 18:19); holy (Psalms 99:9); loves His children (Deut. 23:5); comforter (2 Cor. 1:3); jealous, expects people to worship Him as the only God (Deut. 5:9); Creator (Gen. 1:10); covenant keeper and granter of mercy (1 Kings 8:23); ruler over the earth (2 Chron. 20:6); peaceful and peacemaking (1 Thess. 5:23); and omnipotent (Rev. 19:6).

While such a list is certainly not exhaustive, it is representative of some of the diverse characteristics of God, who is said to possess traits that are often culturally gendered as either male or female. This seems significant for the predominant religion at BYU, where religious persons strive to become like God (an aspiration that, while unattainable in this life, nevertheless sets a strong ethical standard). If God becomes the paradigm for how to be perfect for all humans regardless of gender, and if the portrait of divine behavior in scripture is fluid rather than rigidly fixed when read along gendered lines, then such an example would seem to be a good place to start in analyzing and limiting biases against both genders. Gender bias is not only politically incorrect; it falls short—far too short—of the glory of God.

By Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern

Photo by Daska

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1 Comment

  1. Vanessa Fitzgibbon says:


    What an amazing post! Very well done and documented.

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