Steve Fenton

A journey through sexism

I’m not perfect. I often accidentally generalise in many ways even though I am now hyper-aware of the problem. This isn’t a lecture where someone perfect condescends to a bunch of imperfect people. I am just an average person. I grew up listening to adults around me talking a certain way and because I respected them I absorbed some of those views along the way. It isn’t an excuse and I don’t blame them for it – they in turn may have been brought up in an environment that exposed them to even more extreme views. I didn’t even realise this until I starting thinking about it. Really thinking about it.

Here is the principle I have come to understand. Whenever you take the behaviour of an individual, or a small group and extrapolate from that sample to a more general group (whether it is by gender, colour, height, nationality, accent or brand of car), you strip people of their individuality. To avoid inflaming passions, let’s look at a less controversial example than the hot topic I really want to discuss, which is sexism.

How many aggressive BMW drivers did it take before we all knew what a “typical BMW driver” was? Not a great many. But this is exactly what we do every day without realising it. We then allow confirmation bias to reinforce these generalisations. Every time a BMW driver cuts us up, or does a reckless manoeuvre to jump a queue, we add that to the evidence we store up to confirm that all BMW drivers are aggressive and dangerous. If a BMW driver lets us out at a junction, or drives safely, or uses their indicators we throw it away because it doesn’t fit our belief about BMW drivers. Similarly, we don’t notice how often we get sliced up on the motorway by Ford Escorts, because we don’t have a “typical Ford driver” generalisation (or we have one that suggests they are average drivers) – in fact, we probably get angry at the individual in these cases, whereas we get angry at the group we call “typical BMW drivers”.

So that’s a nice safe example that most people can associate with. Let’s dig a little deeper. If you ran an in-depth study of driving behaviour, you might find that BMW drivers were more likely to be aggressive drivers – but this still doesn’t equate to ALL BMW drivers being aggressive drivers and if someone tells you they are a BMW driver you cannot assume they are an aggressive driver even if the study found 80% of BMW drivers tested showed above average aggression on the road. The person in front of you is an individual who drives a BMW, not “a BMW driver”. In reality, the difference between a BMW driver and any other sample of drivers is unlikely to be significant.

If you really wanted to find out what makes drivers aggressive, you would need to put in the hard work to find out what is causing that behaviour in each individual and see if there was any correlation with car choice. For example, do sales-people get put under a lot of pressure and have too many appointments, too many miles to cover and not enough time? Are sales people more likely to drive BMWs because they cover a lot of miles and need to drive a car with some prestige? Of course, you’d need to keep on digging even when you got this far. Is there a difference between sales people in different industries or who work in different reward systems or who cover larger or smaller regions? This is hard work, so it is much easier to generalise.

The hardest part of ditching generalisations is realising when you are using one. It takes a chunk of hard work before you train yourself to realise you are about to generalise. This is especially true if you have been exposed from an early age.

What causes a generalisation? We love patterns.

If you ask a group of ten people if they watched “The X-Factor” at the weekend, then divided them into a “yes” group and a “no” group – it can be tempting to look for connections between the people within those two groups. Are all the “no” people over 50, or male, or long-haired. You might find a pattern in there somewhere. If most of the “no” group was over 50 years of age – does this mean that older people don’t like The X-Factor?

The most reasonable arguments for people being in the “no” group are that their personal tastes don’t include watching talent contests on television or that they have a busy weekend schedule that doesn’t leave them much time for television. If you really got digging to find out why each individual didn’t watch The X-Factor, there would be a collection of unique circumstances preventing them from enjoying that show!

But we love patterns, so we try to find one.

We are even more likely to find a pattern if there is a common prejudice baked into our up-bringing. I grew up in Britain in the eighties and nineties – so things like gender, age and hair-colour were common cases for often light-hearted (but still damaging) prejudices. It has taken me as long in my adult life to shake these mistaken beliefs as it did to absorb them in the first place. Does my best mate, who has ginger hair, really have to listen to another “hilarious” ginger joke each day and still laugh and take it on the chin? He does this admirably – and in the past has done from me. Not any more though. I will still attack him vigorously and just as regularly (because we enjoy teasing each other) – but I will playfully attack the individual not the “ginger”. Of course, this is not the worst of generalisations – but if you have a similar childhood to mine perhaps you’ll realise just how easy it is to fall into these traps. Maybe it was okay to have friends at school called “ginger”, “shorty” and “hedgehog”, but in the adult world we need to be more intelligent than this.

So on to sexism as this is what has been troubling me more and more. I guess I have been sexist in the past. Not actively. Not deliberately. Just the kind of sexism you learn off of your parents’ generation. The classic “women are weak and men are strong” kind of stuff. The kind of stuff The Pub Landlord jokes about. Nevertheless, I have taken issue with myself over this. I have tried discussing the topic with friends and colleagues and a lot of the things I hear makes me really uncomfortable.

I was discussing a recent article theorising about how women don’t make it into programming. The number of women interested in it, compared to the number who did a computer-science qualification, compared to the number who actually get a job in programming seemed to show they were all essentially getting put off along the way. I have no idea how to solve this problem, but I know for sure that the problem isn’t that “… women aren’t interested in things like programming …”, which is a disappointingly common response I get. I can think of no physiological reason why gender would affect whether you were into programming or maths or science or nursing or any other occupation.

In the context of the society I currently live in, I can understand why gender affects the toys you buy. The adverts teach us what we should like and many toy stores are actually divided by gender. I’m not saying it is right – but I can see why kids end up with the toys they have. The question is, are we somehow doing the same thing in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace? Is this gender-based generalisation so baked-in to our culture that we are putting people off of their perfect career because of the location of their lumpy bits? I don’t use my lumpy-bits at all during the working day. If someone didn’t have the same lumpy-bits as me, it wouldn’t stop them from doing any aspect of my job. I didn’t even have to make use of them in the interview. Similarly, my age, nationality, hair-colour and choice of practical family car have no bearing on what I do.

I don’t know how to solve the problem in the programming community – but I know that I can make changes personally to avoid using generalisations and to challenge them whenever I hear them. On the high-level map of change, this is a tiny ripple in a great big lake – but if enough of us change our own behaviour, perhaps that will be enough to make a massive impact.

So listen out for statements that incorrectly assert that something is true for a large group – whether it is something you are about to say or something that another person is saying out loud! Try substituting the name of the group in the statement to see if it sounds ridiculous – it very often will. If you are at a conference and enjoy a talk, the speaker hasn’t “done well for a woman” or “been fun for a guy in a suit“, the individual has done well, or has been entertaining and that is nothing to do with how you decide to cut and categorize people.

Just because many people use the same categories doesn’t mean they should exist, it just means the problem is bigger than you thought.

Written by Steve Fenton on