The Unconscious Bias Against Women

Author: Po Waghalter

Guest Editor: Ashley Kaye

April 8, 2020 10:13am

We all know society generally favors men in government, politics, the legal field, trying to get a fair deal on car repairs, and generally anything else other than skipping the line at a nightclub on a Saturday night or becoming an Instagram celebrity. If you cannot accept this premise, please stop reading now.

In fairness, it’s important to acknowledge the progress made toward giving women their dignity in America: women can vote, drive, work, enter into contracts, serve in the military, play professional sports, go to law school, and more. It can be disheartening to realize that, not only were these basic rights and desires of women so hard-fought, but also that the fight for gender equality is not complete. Women still face unjust hurdles in civil society, including unconscious bias.

Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton (2016)

In Hulu’s 2020 docuseries, Hillary, a campaign staffer questioned the presidential candidate and former Secretary of State’s shoe choice before she walked on stage for a debate. She quickly retorted whether her competitor Bernie Sanders would have encountered the same criticism. The quick exchange crystallized an example of the numerous and seemingly never-ending double standards faced by a woman regardless of her profession or stature – indeed, even if she is the leading candidate for President of the United States.

Despite her impeccable credentials and accomplishments, Clinton is still reminded to be mindful of the minutiae of her appearance, lest the world get the wrong impression based on her choice of footwear. One would be hard-pressed to find similar anecdotes about Secretary Clinton’s male opponents in the Democratic primary or the general election.

Exhibit B: Marcia Clark (1995)

While prosecuting a homicide against O.J. Simpson in what was likely the highest profile case of the decade, prosecutor Marcia Clark’s personal life, appearance, and especially hairstyle became a central focus of the media’s attention. Writer Jenn Rose said it best: “When people think of Marcia Clark, they tend to think not of a prosecutor who won 19 out of the 21 murder trials that she tried during her career, but of that hair… Clark’s hair was mocked relentlessly by the press, and by the nation at large.”[1]

As we saw with Clinton, Ms. Clark’s male counterparts on the prosecution and defense teams were not subject to the same superficial scrutiny, further highlighting this double standard.

Exhibit C: Anita Hill (1991)

Law professor Anita Hill came forward to the then-all-male Senate Judiciary Committee to give sworn testimony regarding alleged sexual misconduct she experienced working for Clarence Thomas, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was being considered by the committee. Throughout the high-profile hearing, Professor Hill was subjected to frequent disrespect from members of the committee – on both sides of the aisle – as well as the news media.

As well-covered by Liza Mundy for Politico, “Hill was pilloried for coming forward. Conservative (at the time) writer David Brock called her ‘a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty’ (a jeer he would later recant). She was accused of having a ‘fantasy’ about Thomas; of being spurned by him; of making it all up.”[2]

Furthermore, micro-aggressions persisted throughout Professor Hill’s appearance before the committee. In just one early example, after Ms. Hill was sworn in, but just before she began her testimony, Committee Chairman Senator Joseph Biden abruptly cut her off, telling others present to make sure the doors remain closed. The unconscious bias here is the arguably unnecessary interruption, easily excused and dismissed as unintentional or irrespective of the interrupted speaker’s gender. To this, society often gives the benefit of the doubt, but when women have so often been on the receiving end of such interruptions and rarely observe the same happening to their male counterparts, we begin to wonder…

Exhibit D: All Women

Beginning with the negative insinuation of “hitting like a girl” to the intended encouragement to “man-up!”- our society has adopted a norm of devaluing women that is deeply and often unconsciously entrenched in our lives. One does not have to be a bra-burning feminist to accept that every woman in the world has likely encountered some form of unconscious bias in their life.

The price paid for this bias against women can be low, such as the irritation in being interrupted or “mansplained” to (we’ll leave mansplaining for a future article!); or high, as displayed in the treatment of, and professional consequences for Hillary Clinton, Marcia Clark, and Anita Hill. The reality remains that, although women have incomparable liberties and privileges in America as compared to much of the world, there remains room for improvement in the unconscious biases toward women here in the U.S. It’s an often silent offense that’s screaming for our attention.


[1]  https://www.romper.com/p/marcia-clarks-haircut-made-people-lose-it-at-the-oj-simpson-trial-the-sexism-was-real-6638

[2] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/23/rewatched-anita-hill-testimony-kavanaugh-metoo-220526

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