I was watching an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where he was rehabilitating a restaurant in Pamona, CA. For the special grand re-opening of the restaurant, he invited the mayor of Pamona. They showed the mayor arriving in a party of four–two men and two women. I assumed the mayor was the tallest man.
I didn’t even think, “which one is the mayor?” I didn’t think anything. I just saw a picture of four people at a table and my prejudice zeroed in on the tallest male as the likely authority figure. It was only later in the episode when the mayor was interviewed and they showed the woman alone that I realized what a sexist moron part of me still is.
Happily, my sexism doesn’t extend to my conscious self. Once I knew the mayor was a woman, I didn’t assume that she wasn’t a good mayor or is unqualified to be a mayor. And I’m aware of the problem, so I can compensate a bit.
I’ve been trying to find an episode of Radiolab in which there is an explanation of a thing humans can do and animals can’t: imagine two disparate ideas overlapped. My dog can see that my pajamas are striped, but he can’t imagine those stripes on the piano. He can see the piano and the stripes, but he can’t put them together. I can. You can. We’re human. The reason is that stripes and pajamas and pianos are all exist in the brain someplace, and we, humans, can build neural bridges. Stripes gets connected to pajamas as soon as you see striped pajamas (and, possibly, have words for them). And that connection is reinforced every time you watch a Doris Day movie. Stripes doesn’t get connected to piano because it never needs to be. Until I write it down here. Now you’ve got a very wimpy bridge between stripes and piano.
I wish I could find the Radiolab episode, but I spent, like, half an hour looking and I just can’t. Sorry.
Anyway. I can imagine a woman and a mayor, and then build a bridge between to learn a new thing: woman mayor. But the bridge is not nearly so strongly reinforced as the bridge between man and mayor. Same with doctor, lawyer, driver, and so many other things–including, of course, conductor.
My high school biology teacher told us this riddle you’ve likely heard before: A boy and his father are in a car accident. The father dies, but the boy is taken into surgery. The surgeon at the hospital says, “I can’t perform this operation; the boy is my son.” How is this possible? The surgeon is his mother. It stumped me when I was fourteen. Teenagers these days might even be more likely to say that the boy’s parents are two gay men than to assume that a woman–a mother, even!–is a surgeon.
So a woman gets on the podium and people’s minds rebel. Their brains are trying to connect two disparate ideas: woman, conductor.
It’s not our fault. Assumptions are built into us by what we observe. Happily, we have the capacity as humans to build those new bridges, create new opportunities, and celebrate possibilities we never considered before. When we know that the world reinforces stereotypes, we have the chance to change it. There’s nothing really stopping women from being mayors or surgeons or conductors, but they’re less likely to consider it if they don’t have an opportunity to build the bridge. For those of us who do consider it, part of our job then becomes reprogramming the brains of everyone around us.
This is all true for race as well as sex, by the way.