Think you’re not sexist? Think again: A thinking tool for fixing gender bias.

male cheerleaders

If this seems odd, it shows a cognitive bias in your decision making…

Are you a sexist? The chances are you’ll answer that question with a “no”. But how do you know? You might not mean to be sexist, but have you ever tested the assumption with a logical, rational measure? You’ll probably answer that question with a “no” too, because you don’t need to prove it to yourself… because you’re not a sexist, right? (Alas, humans are bad at achieving insight like that. For years I told myself, for example, that my hair wasn’t receding and I’m not overweight, but in all honesty, both are true).

So are you a sexist? Would you prove it to yourself, if you could, if it only took a couple of minutes? Sure.

The problem is, sexism isn’t always a conscious choice, like all prejudice it’s often an unconscious learned behaviour. The problem with unconscious learned behaviours is we’re not equipped to spot them on a rational, conscious basis. So if knowing is a conscious, rational thought process and prejudice is an unconscious, irrational thought process, you can’t actually know if you’re prejudiced without testing it in some way.

So here’s a test. I call it the Unconscious Stereotyper Test and it’s a thinking tool designed to drag your unconscious thoughts into the spotlight of your conscious, rational mind and let you decide for yourself whether you’re as unbiased as you think you are. Use it, if you dare…


Before you begin the test, here’s a quick note about sexism – in no-man’s land.

Unlike most social prejudices, like racism or homophobia, sexism is one of those prejudices that is frequently found in the no-man’s land between prejudice and something people refer to as “political correctness gone mad”. (As an aside, I’ve never worked out, if something is correct, how it could possibly be too correct, go mad and therefore become wrong? It doesn’t make sense, but we hear the expression all the time).

Note the term “no-man’s land”. We all know what it means, obviously, and it’s not taken as a sexist statement, however it refers to gender. It documents the fact that women were not allowed to occupy front line combat roles during WW1, so the land that belonged to neither side between the front lines of the opposing troops was “no man’s” – I.e. No men occupied it. No women also occupied it, either, but they don’t get a mention.

The fact that the opposing forces were put there by governments who represented entire nations of men and women, means it could have been called “no-nation’s land” or whatever, but it was “man” that was the descriptor that was chosen. And most people are fine with that. That’s a good example of sexism in the grey area between obvious discrimination and tacitly accepted social prejudice.

What that (admittedly pedantic) argument is designed to illustrate is the fact prejudice against women is unlike almost any other social prejudice because it’s often rendered invisible by the fact women are ubiquitous. There are women who are victims of racism. There are women who are victims of homophobia. There are women who are victims of class snobbery. In all those cases, they might also be victims of gender prejudice but the sexism is harder to spot because it’s nested within another prejudice. And because the observer might well harbour sexist attitudes themselves, they will weigh the gender neutral prejudice higher than the sexism.

The cheerleader conundrum

The flip side of the way sexism is obscured by other prejudices is, alarmingly, that you might accept sexism where you wouldn’t accept a racist equivalent. For example, compare these two examples:

Example 1: A cheerleader squad comprised of pretty young blonde women in skimpy leotards chanting for their (entirely male) football team. Nothing unusual about that, right? There are hundreds, if not thousands of them performing every week.

Example 2: An all-male, black cheerleader squad, comprised of young men dressed like 19 century African slaves cheering for their (mostly white) football team. There’s an obvious racist overtone to that.

What’s the difference? You might argue that black men don’t dress like that, or behave like that in the real world, and it references a period of racist exploitation of that ethnic group. It would be unacceptable and misrepresentative. Fair enough.

However, for women it’s equally misrepresentative. Most women don’t look or dress like cheerleaders, that the appearance of the cheerleader is clearly designed to accentuate their sexuality. Also the women are dancing for a completely male football team… so exaggerating gender roles. The men play sport, the women cheer them on, looking sexy. That’s grossly misrepresentative of women in modern society, isn’t it?

Let’s reconfigure the cheerleader example.

Example 3: An all black female cheerleader squad. Again, you might question the racial element of the squad before you challenge the female composition of it.

Example 4: A mixed gender cheerleader squad. Now that’s an interesting one. Why? Because there aren’t any at a national, TV coverage level. Why not? In this day and age, why can’t men be cheerleaders? Is there a suggestion that dancing and singing to make people cheer for a team of men should be exclusively a female job? Why is that?

The deeper you get into it, the more the questions keep coming. You can’t deny it, there’s something basically wrong with the way we think about cheerleaders. So why do we accept them? The answer is simple, because, deep down, we have a cognitive bias to accept sexism.

There’s proof for this point of view from the world of cheerleading. Interestingly, cheerleading started as an all male pursuit in 1877 at Princeton University in the USA. It wasn’t until the 1920’s (when the male population was depleted by the war efforts of the USA) that it shifted to be predominantly female, and today it is about 97% female. At a college level, the gender split is more like 50:50.

So cheerleading isn’t blatantly sexist after all, however, when it moves from being a voluntary unpaid role at college and a paid position by a multi-million dollar business that relies on ticket sales, it changes from being mixed gender to single sex. That indicates a perception that people won’t pay to see a gender neutral cheerleading team. They want sassy, perky young women in leotards. Not guys in lycra.

Why? Because women are better at cheerleading than men? Better dancers? Better at chanting? More acrobatic? Because it’s a sport of some sort with a fan following? Or because women are objectified by the media as sexual objects and this is a well established mode of presenting women in entertainment? Like the male magician’s glamourous assistant. Like the Folies Bergere? Like dozens of movies that pair 60+ year old Hollywood actors with a 20+ year old actress as their love interest (despite the vast age gap) and presenting that as being perfectly credible, even though it hardly ever happens in real life?

It’s not a rational, data supported argument to present any of these things as coincidence. Nor is it rational to argue that the critic of these portrayals of women in the media is somehow being picky, or a killjoy. If you think that way, it’s a cognitive bias issue with your thinking processes, not the person pointing them out.

Growing up with cognitive bias

There’s a term in contemporary feminism called “Patriarchal Socialisation” which explains the problem we have spotting sexism in our lives. It means we grew up in a world where social attitudes – which are effectively the rules we learn that govern our behaviour within communities – were dominated by men, the role of men and a workplace and social culture that discriminated against women. You might reject that idea, but these types of learned social attitudes govern all aspects of our lives and are very deep seated and powerful.

In order to demonstrate this principle, I’ve devised a simple thinking tool to explain how most people have a lot of unconscious bias present in their opinion forming processes. It’s not specifically designed to identify sexism. It’s designed to illustrate the power of unconscious biases to affect our logic. Try it for yourself.

Presenting the “Unconscious Stereotyper Test”

This test works simply as a logical mechanism to explore the existence of unconscious bias in your decision making. For it to work, you have to be honest with yourself. It’s not about proving a point, it’s about correcting logical faults in your decision making, which means it will make you better at making decisions, so it’s worth the effort.

Try this – match the person to the job:

Person A works in a hoodie, jeans and trainers, they work on a laptop sitting on a beanbag in room with a TV, a games console and brightly coloured furniture.

Person B works in a business suit, with smart black shoes. They work at a desktop computer, sitting on a traditional office chair at a desk in a room with traditional office furniture.

Now get a good visual image of both Person A and Person B in your head. Close your eyes if necessary. (Seriously, this will help you get a good result from the thinking tool). Got a visual image? Okay…

Match Person A and Person B to the following jobs:

Job A is a stock broker.

Job B is working in a computer game company.

Result: Most people make an apparently logical choice that Person A (hoodie) is a computer game employee, and Person B (suit) is a stock broker. But how did you know? Because of their clothes and the interior design of their workplace. (Obviously, because you didn’t have any other data from which to match the person to the job).

Analysis: What this result demonstrates is the fact we all unconsciously use a set of learned social data in our opinion forming processes. We think we know how stock brokers dress for work and what their work environment is like, without ever going there or seeing it ourselves. We also know what a computer game employee would look like too, and we imagine their office to reflect a different image from a stock broker. This gut feeling, intuition, common sense (call it what you like) knowledge is loaded into your memory unconsciously by your exposure to the attitudes and appearances of the society you grew up in.

Counter analysis: In reality, there are hundreds of thousands of stock brokers who are self-employed day traders that work from home and can wear whatever they want, and work from wherever they want. By the same token the multi-billion dollar computer games industry has a lot of different working environments, within which people wear suits and formal shoes. So you have just matched Person A and Person B to the wrong job – however you did it with the feeling you were right, which is cognitive bias at work.

The Person A / Person B descriptions are stereotypes. The choice is rigged. There is no right answer. The objective, rational truth is there’s no logical process to assign either person to either job. This is the unconscious stereotype effect. Without access to any qualitative data about two people, whom you visualised in your own mind, you have unconsciously created two misrepresentative stereotypes and assigned them careers.

But we’re not done yet!

Let’s ask one last question which will bring your unconscious bias into your conscious mind… close your eyes and visualise the hoodie wearing Person A, working on a beanbag at a games company and the suit wearing Person B, working in a traditional office selling stocks again.

If that seems a bit hollow now (because you know they are stereotypes) reverse them if you want. Make the hoodie a stockbroker and the suit into a computer games employee. Get a really good image in your head:

Now here’s the question:

Are they women?

Result: The chances are, you imagined two men. Don’t recoil from it if you did, most people I’ve tested (men and women) defaulted to select the male gender. Why is that? The answers seem obvious:

1. If you have any exposure to the world of banking or computer games, you’ll have noticed that in both cases, those industries have a gender balance with more male than female employees. So you’ve used observable, real world data in your visualisation.

2. If you are a similar age to myself (42) you grew up in a world where things like stock brokers and computer programmers were predominantly male, portrayed in the media as mostly male, defined by teachers and parents as being things mostly men did. In fact, in the 1970s, both careers were almost exclusively male.

3. You have a sexist cognitive bias.

Analysis: How we can prove bias here is simple. The fact you have been exposed to observations that made Person A and Person B most likely to be male is memory influencing your choices. The fact you’ve grown-up in a world where males were assigned those kinds of life outcome is socialisation. However, the fact you chose to assign two imaginary, theoretical people a male gender is a choice, unlike your memory data or the social attitudes of the world you grew up in. You didn’t chose your memories or attitudes of your parents, the media etc. You did choose to make Person A and Person B male.

That’s how cognitive bias works. It uses unconscious thought processes and data to affect your rational decision making processes. If you made Person A and Person B male in your imagination, your thinking process was biased towards the male gender. The why is irrelevant.

Proof 1: The test doesn’t ask you to predict their gender, based on real world observations.

Proof 2: The test doesn’t ask you to assign their gender based on what your parents would have chosen. In fact, it doesn’t ask you to assign their gender at all.

Proof 3: You assigned the gender of Person A and Person B spontaneously, on your own. It was a choice. A choice made unconsciously, which your logical mind might try to explain as being random, but wasn’t random at all. It was a sexist cognitive bias.

How did you do?

Correcting your sexist cognitive bias

This is simple. If you can accept, based on this test, that you have a sexist cognitive bias you can try to correct it. You need to test your decision making for a gender bias by removing all factors in your decision making that relate to gender. It’s easier said than done, so test your thinking with the following checklist:

1. Would I apply any argument in the same way if it was an exclusively male topic?

Example: In historical sex abuse cases in the press, we’ve all heard arguments that the sexual attitudes of the past were different, and so therefore we shouldn’t judge a TV presenter with wandering hands by today’s standards. So, to correct for a cognitive bias there, ask yourself if would you give any merit to the opinion that “things were different in the 1970s” if a male celebrity was accused of trying to force himself onto a 15 year old boy?

2. Have I conceptualised anyone in the decision making process with a gender specific noun like girl, woman etc. If so, why?

Example: It’s not sexist to acknowledge gender when it’s relevant – my mother is a woman so therefore I won’t buy her a beard trimmer for Christmas because women don’t grow beards. That’s fine. However, referencing gender when it’s not relevant, I.e. “It’s difficult for a woman to run an oil rig full of rough, tough men” when management is a gender neutral skill set, is sexist cognitive bias at work.

3. Acknowledge that society is biased against women and disambiguate value judgements from statistical data.

Example: It’s not more or less acceptable for a woman to get drunk and fight than a man. It’s less statistically common, but that doesn’t apply a value judgement which changes how we should judge the behaviour itself. Getting drunk and fighting isn’t cool, but it’s no better or worse depending on the gender of the fighting drunks, that is sexist cognitive bias. The same applies to farting, swearing, burping, crying, shitting yourself or anything else that human beings do.

4. Have you ever referred to a woman over the age of 18 as a “girl” but don’t refer to men as “boys” in the same context? Do you apply a similar differential in negative terms.

Example: “Natalie is a lovely girl. Adam is a nice guy” or “Natalie is a bitch. Adam is a dick.” (Girl and Guy are not equal terms, neither is Bitch or Dick.) In fact, the language you use, the stories you tell down the pub, the metaphors you employ in your speech shouldn’t be governed by the gender of the people present when you do it, either. And if you have a problem calling a woman a “dick” you should recognise that there aren’t any slang terms of equivalent low impact status that refer to a vagina in the way there are dozens for the penis – which is just another example of sexist bias, this time in linguistics. Try using the C-word more often to reclaim it and see how your male friends react compared to when you call them a dick as proof.

5. Assume one woman’s choice to indulge sexist attitudes justifies sexist attitudes.

Example: Just because cheerleaders might argue it’s not sexist, that point of view doesn’t diminish the viewpoint of women who say cheerleaders are sexist. If some women shrug off a man grabbing their arse and trying to kiss them as “oh that’s just men for you” it doesn’t make an argument to justify aggressive sexual behaviour. If a topless model claims that she’s fine with getting paid to show her boobs, that doesn’t mean women who find it unacceptable are somehow being spoil sports, etc.

(These are a few examples, no doubt you can think of a lot more of your own – and if you can, stick them in the comments for this post so I can do a follow-up piece).

Sexism is all around us. It’s woven into the fabric of society. It influences your decision making, regardless of your gender.

Make better decisions and check your cognitive bias because, regardless of what you might be inclined to think about this article, rational thought processes are improved by reducing the influence of cognitive bias. That’s as true for men as it is for women, too.