Chats with my Daughter – Sexism

If you spend any time on the internet you’ve undoubtedly seen at least one video of a cute child explaining the world to their parents. The combination of innocence, sincerity and (often) a lispy voice has led to millions of views and heart warming comments.

You might think this post will fall into that domain – I wish that were the case…

No, in our house, open discussion on any subject was always encouraged. This has led to the odd dinner guest being left in stunned silence as the conversation took something of a ‘left turn’.

The problem with encouraging children to engage in open discourse on any topic is, rather predictably, that they grow up. My daughter, Caragh who is now in her early twenties, takes this attitude to heart.

This leads to many long conversations, actually hours of conversation, where I, more often than not, find myself attempting to justify the world she has entered as an adult.

The most recent conversation we shared centred largely around sexism and more generally discrimination and how much longer women will have to wait to properly realise equality.

Inherent Bias

During the course of our conversation, she expressed particular disappointment with a film director (who shall remain nameless) who had developed a reputation for supporting women’s rights and had presented himself as a strong advocate for women in the industry. Lately a number of accusations have emerged that portray a quite different picture.

One of Caragh’s more pointed questions was whether there was too much focus on performance and not enough focus on actual change when it comes to women’s rights. The question arose of when the world will get to the point where the performance is no longer necessary because fundamentally we as a people have changed.

Great question, and not one that I had an answer for.

One of the more disturbing revelations from our conversation is Caragh’s belief that I’m inherently sexist. She mentioned this almost in passing and not as a judgement per se; I’m a man and therefore cannot be anything other than fundamentally sexist.

As a dad, it’s hard to hear that far from being the hero in your daughter’s internal narrative, that in fact on some level you are the villain.

She may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow at some point, but if not she captured the core concepts quite well. Our fast brain reacts and judges long before our slow brain has time to catch up and interrupt.

By extension then, I, when interviewing women for example, immediately see a woman first and then a skill set. I beg to differ and hopefully she’ll come to believe that at some point.

Agency

Despite this insightful view on bias, I have quite a fundamental problem with this perspective. Readers of my blog, or those who’ve had the dubious good fortune to work with me, will know that I don’t like anything that suggest the elimination of agency. People have choices and they need to be making those choices consciously.

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

This quote is attributed variously to Viktor Frankl, Stephen Covey, and occasionally Thomas Walton Galloway. Regardless of which of these luminaries actually put forward this proposal, the message is clear: Despite the influence of our unconscious mind, it is up to us how we choose to respond to situations.

Caragh, not unfamiliar with my thinking in this regard, was less than impressed with this suggestion. Referring back to the aforementioned director, she suggested that this was merely performative and not a real solution to the problem.

The Problem With Performance

Behaving in a particular manner doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s actually going on in someone’s head. Isn’t this the problem with performances? It’s all a charade, right?

Clearly this bit of the blog post wouldn’t exist if that were the case.

It turns out, according to Elliot Aronson amongst others, that it is quite a bit more complicated.

There is much evidence to support the notion that having people behave or act in a certain way can cause a change in attitude. The source of the change is cognitive dissonance, which you can think of as the mental discomfort caused by doing something that contradicts a belief, value or attitude that you hold.

So how does this change attitude? Well, we naturally want to ease the discomfort. Think about me, a publicly declared rock head, going to a K-Pop concert. I know, I know, hell has not in fact frozen over; I’m trying to be deliberately evocative.

Moving on. One of three things must happen in this scenario:

  1. I need to find some reason for me to be in attendance. Ideally some reason that is entirely out of my control, but eliminates my choice. This is external justification, and if I can find it I don’t need to change my opinion of K-Pop because I can eliminate the dissonance by blaming something else.
  2. I can find no reason for me to be in attendance, or any reason I find is so entirely weak that it’s hardly worth mentioning. This is a real problem as my dissonance will be extremely high.
    To reduce the dissonance, I start to soften my position on K-Pop. It’s not all bad right? There are some fine production values on display? If I can’t find external justification then I need to build some internal justification. This is where real change starts.
  3. I take myself to a monastery, take a vow of silence and suffer lifelong dissonance by not dealing with the contradiction.

This highlights a problem with the approach taken by the vast majority of governments and organisations around the world. Forcing people to behave in a certain way through a threat of loss of employment or other penalty provides an external justification for their behaviour and will not cause a lasting change of attitude. So positive discrimination, explicit company policies that implicitly highlight differences and so on are all likely to fail to achieve the desired result.

The fix, based on the research of those much smarter than I is this: people need to modify their behaviour where there is actually little or no reward for doing so. It is only in this scenario that they must find some internal justification for the change that will trigger the desired change in attitude.

We Already Know

One of the most frustrating aspects of this situation, I think, is that we clearly know how to change minds and opinions.

We live in a world filled with marketing, advertising and ‘influencers’. It’s a multi billion euro industry that is entirely contingent on getting the masses to behave in a manner, in the form of purchasing mostly, that they would not necessarily normally behave.

Why then is this experience not being directed towards equality?

Caragh suggested that there’s a lack of interest amongst the dusty old men who still hold the reigns of power and control on a global level.

She might have a point.

Marketing experienced a boom after the second world war, especially in the United States. There was a problem. Soldiers returning home from war needed to get back into their jobs, but in their absence women had taken their place. Now there was an issue: women could do the same jobs as men, and had been for a number of years. How could they be convinced to return to domestic duties?

Enter marketing, which spent the decade following World War 2 convincing women that once again their place was in the home, raising children and creating domestic bliss. Post war women were being driven back to Victorian era roles.

Many men and women, who were born or raised in this era, have shaped the narrative for more than half a century and their influence remains in force today.

Taking Action

Where to start? Well, sadly, take a look in the mirror. There’s no point in wondering why politicians, industry leaders or others aren’t taking action when you aren’t taking action.

For me, this did require a conscious change in language. When I’m giving a presentation or holding a meeting, I work hard to eliminate language that could be interpreted as discriminatory in any way. The words we use are important. They can give license for others to espouse the attitudes they interpret from what you say. This is a key point, it’s not what you intended, it’s what others interpret. So choose your words carefully.

Stop attributing justification beyond yourself. Rather than referring to some company policy or legislation, how about saying ‘I don’t like this’. Personalise the challenge and make it clear that this is your opinion, not one foisted upon you.

Vote your conscience. Whether it be in the workplace, if you’re involved in hiring particularly, make sure that you explore attitudes and simply don’t recommend hiring people with outdated attitudes.

But in the current political situation, it does require more. I’m not going to go into the increased polarisation of society politically, but there is a worrying trend towards rolling back women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and in fact anything that could be deemed non-traditional.

Why? Nobody’s rolling back men’s rights…

We can find all sorts of words like toxic masculinity and cisnormativity to make it sound like we’re evolving but what we don’t need is more women fighting harder to maintain their hard won freedom. More men must decide that they can’t look at their wives, daughters, sisters, partners and friends fighting alone any longer. That requires more men to be speaking out, more men to be saying ‘I do not support this’.

For me, and for Caragh, it’s personal.

Support Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression that we should all oppose and speak out against. I will continue to Stand with Ukraine and its people until peace is restored.

Photo by Brett Jordan from Pexels

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