There’s a trick I used to play on people to show others how easy it is to get someone’s brain on an assumption track where they’ll assume things that don’t even make sense in an attempt to pattern-match new information with their original beliefs, even if the belief is new too. Here’s a story I used to tell an example of me planting and harvesting a false belief:
A boy goes fishing with his father and brothers and the boat tips over. The boy is pulled to shore unconscious with a serious head injury. An ambulance is called and, with the help of the father and sons pushing from below, the two attendants man-haul the boy up the steep banks of the lake and they race him to the hospital. He’s wheeled straight into surgery and, as the team moves their equipment into place the surgeon suddenly turns his attention to the patient and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. This is my son!” The question I would then ask is, who is the surgeon?
Maybe people would be better at it today, but up until about six or seven years ago, traditionally the number one answer is easily that it’s the father, along with the theory that he rode back with them in the ambulance. When I remind the listener that he and the other sons are still back at the lake, a huge percentage of the time the next guess is that it’s his step-father; and after that it’s usually a second gay dad, then a grandfather that was a proxy-parent. When people have been told these guesses aren’t right, they’ve even tried Priest-Surgeon.
Many smart people pondered long and hard without ever considering that the doctor might be a woman, and if they had it’s likely that mother would have been the easy, obvious first guess. This shows how powerful assumptions are. Just by using all male pronouns, combined with the fact that most surgeons were historically male, I could tilt even a female listener’s mind away from the obvious guess (especially if she’s not a mother herself). And you don’t need sexism for it to happen.
Not that long ago I was listening to an interview with Phyllis Web, the female creator of CBC Radio’s excellent documentary program, Ideas. In an interview a few days after the documentary on the origins of the program, Phyllis was asked if she hired any women to be on the staff of the show and the young lady seem shocked to learn she hadn’t hired any. She enquired as to why not?
Phyllis actually had to think about it before saying that it just never occurred to her. She knew people she’d always wanted to work with and now she had the power to put them all on one team with her. What gender they were never figured into her decision; it was admiration.
The fact remains that Phyllis would have had more women to admire if more women had been in positions of authority where she could look up to them, but my point is that she didn’t actively omit women–the genders literally never occurred to her.
This is much the same as when I work in film. If you ask anyone of any race in North America to cast a teacher for a TV show, 99% of the time you would see a white person because that was who was on TV so even an ethnic casting director thought that way. The important part is that this behaviour is innocent. It’s not an attack on anyone, it’s an error by omission. It’s just a brain pattern-matching what it’s seen in the past.
I’ve heard many times that men are hostile to women on executive boards etc., and I know every possible human behaviour is eventually acted out, so I’m sure there have been some horrible examples, but I’ve been in those boardrooms and I never recall anyone dissing women so it certainly doesn’t happen all the time. And yet those men would fall into the same trap of primarily considering men for jobs.
That unconscious desire was not an active omission of women, it was one done on the same subconscious level that lead Phyllis to hire no women on Ideas. The same thing would happen to a feminist who wouldn’t see herself as blocking men when she backed a woman, she would just see it as making some long overdue headway. No one’s trying to be a villain, it’s just that everyone has their own reasons for anointing their own champions.
There is a lot of polarisation going on today and many people see many enemies that exist only in their imaginations. Yes, it’s a frustrating thing that it has taken so long to see women rising to key positions and equal pay, but the trend was started a while ago and it will continue to build exponentially as men and women and various cultures alike all learn as individuals to naturally include all types of people in their considerations.
Don’t see enemies where there is only a trick of the mind. Yes, there is room for improvement, but people are already generally far more decent, kind and generous than they’ve been getting credit for lately. This is a path, we’re going the right direction, we can all relax and stop worrying. Rather than be angry about how it is we’ll accomplish more by enjoying our movement toward something better. Each of us needs only to decide to actively build our day by consciously seeking out positive, optimistic and rewarding experiences and the big issues will take care of themselves one individual at a time.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.