To achieve gender equality, we must first tackle our unconscious biases

People often argue that most Western societies have achieved gender equality. Despite this, feminists continue to argue that the battle is not yet won.

People often argue that most Western societies have achieved gender equality – women have all the same legal rights as men, and workplace discrimination based on gender is illegal. Despite this, feminists continue to argue that the battle for gender equality is not yet won.


So what do we mean when we talk about gender equality, and how will we know when we have it?

What does the evidence tell us?

There is evidence of widespread prejudice against women and girls from decades of psychological research. For instance, an experiment was conducted in which participants watched an entrepreneurial pitch video of images relating to a new venture, narrated by the voice of the entrepreneur. Participants were randomly assigned to a group in which either a male or female voice narrated the pitch, which was otherwise identical. When a male voice pitched the venture, 68% of participants thought it was worthy of funding, compared to only 32% when pitched by a female voice.

Such effects occur even when gender is presented only on paper. In an experiment in which participants were asked to rate an applicant for a laboratory manager position, an identical application was provided in two separate conditions. However, in each condition, the application was randomly assigned as belonging to either “John” or “Jennifer”. Participants who were led to believe the applicant was male rated them as more competent and hireable, as well as offering them a higher starting salary and more career mentoring.

Even children show this gender bias. One study asked children to guess whether a “really, really smart” protagonist in a story was a man or a woman. By the age of six, girls were less likely to guess that the protagonist was a woman than boys were to guess that the protagonist was a man.

This scientific evidence demonstrates that people do in fact discriminate based on gender, despite denials that gender inequality persists in modern societies. This research demonstrates that even when all else is equal, women are at a disadvantage to men in many domains. This might be because men are perceived as being more capable in general, even in the absence of evidence to suggest superior skills.

Equal does not mean identical

One might object that there are meaningful differences between males and females, and these in turn are the source of gender inequality. Some believe that equality is the wrong word to use, because males and females can’t be equal if they are different.

But when feminists refer to gender equality, we are not arguing that males and females are identical or indistinguishable on all behaviour, preferences and abilities. Nor does it mean all gender differences must be eliminated, or that we must have equal gender representation in every field.

For instance, there are many more male firefighters than female firefighters. Part of this is likely due to gender differences in work preferences. But it is also partly due to the physical strength tests used in recruiting firefighters. These include being able to lift a 72kg mannequin and drag it for 45 metres. Many fit men can achieve this feat, but substantially fewer fit women can.

Even in the absence of gender discrimination, we might always have fewer female firefighters simply because of such physical requirements. But as long as these requirements are reasonable for the job and no woman is excluded because she is a woman, then gender discrimination is not a problem. Gender equality doesn’t mean we must have a 50:50 balance of men and women in every profession purely for the sake of equal representation.

Equality or equity?

Gender equality also does not mean that males and females must always be treated the same. Given the existence of biological sex differences, it is reasonable for males and females to have different legal rights in some instances. For example, only females can ever require maternity leave specifically for pregnancy and birth.

In cases such as these, what is required is not equal treatment, but equitable treatment. Equity means recognising that differences in ability mean that fairness often requires treating people differently so that they can achieve the same outcome. At times equity is necessary to achieve gender equality, but there are many instances where this is not the case.

Most of the time, women and girls are at no inherent disadvantage due to a lack of ability that warrants differential treatment. Gender equality can often be achieved just by holding everyone to the same standard. The problem, as highlighted by the evidence reviewed above, is the irrational gender bias that women and girls are routinely subjected to.

The purpose of affirmative action policies to increase female representation is to counteract systemic discrimination against women. Affirmative action creates gender equity by overcoming the barriers women face simply because of their gender. If we can eliminate this gender-based discrimination, no such action will be necessary.

Achieving gender equality

So if gender equality does not mean that males and females must be identical or always require the same treatment in order to achieve fairness, what does it mean?

Gender equality is seeing males and females as being of equal status and value. It is judging a person based on their merit, and not viewing them as inferior or superior purely based on their gender.

Unfortunately, the evidence reviewed above suggests this prejudice is still widespread, and we often aren’t aware of our own biases. We cannot say that we have gender equality until this prejudice is overcome and we have eliminated the irrational bias that people have against somebody just because they are female.

Equal rights are not enough. Inequality exists in our minds, in our biases and prejudices, and that remains to be fixed.

Beatrice Alba, Research Fellow, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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