NB: For the purposes of this essay, the terms of the gender binary will be used as they are the terms used in the data that is cited. We acknowledge that gender is a spectrum and that the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ do not encapsulate the diverse ways that gender is experienced. The fluidity of gender is often ignored in data, making the results of the data less rich and less representative. In spite of this, we can only work with the data that we have, which regrettably only cites the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’.
In an essay published in the New York Review of Books in 1990, Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen estimated that there were more than 100 million women missing. To put this number into context, this is four times the current Australian population!
So where had they gone? Sen, as well as the emerging school of feminist economics, concluded that economics was biased against women, and that these women were victims of extreme economic deprivation.
This systemic gender bias can be attributed to at least three centuries of male-dominated economic thinking, during which women were treated as if invisible. Conventional economics assigns a “benevolent patriarch” to each household unit when undertaking analysis to avoid dealing with individuals. There is perfect harmony in this household, where the benevolent male leader provides for his family. This allows economists to draw higher levels of inference that is otherwise impossible.
However, what meaningful conclusions can be drawn when more than half of the world is disregarded? Indeed, there is an inherent trade-off between equity and ease of analysis: including more autonomous agents complicates any form of analysis. Yet, as self-proclaimed experts at handling tradeoffs, economists seem to have miscalculated the egregious costs to women.
As a result of conventional economic thinking, our measure of society’s output, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is fundamentally flawed. A very simple story called “women at leisure” serves to illustrate this. If a man were to hire a female housekeeper to do chores, then this labour is included in GDP. However, if he were to marry her, then that same labour is no longer recognised by economists as labour. Instead, she must be doing the only other activity that economics recognises: leisure.
This view has had disastrous consequences for women all around the world. In OECD countries, women do about twice as much housework as men; in developing countries around the world, it is women who have to raise children, fetch water, grind corn, sew clothes and more. Furthermore, despite the disproportionate amount of work mothers undertake in raising the future work-force, they are not compensated with recognition of their labour. This is clearly not leisure.
Women’s disappearance from data is not only just an inequity that needs to be addressed in the economic realm, but the gender data gap also has other severe implications.
The ‘Average Man’
The gendered data gap arises from male experience being deemed the standard experience. This omission of the female experience can have a large range of consequences; from trivial to fatal.
On a seemingly trivial note, before releasing gender inclusive emojis in 2018, the original 2008 Apple emojis would present professions and activities as only one gender. Emojis denoting a profession were usually represented by men; male police officers, male medical professionals as well as emojis depicting physical activity; a surfing man, a swimming man and a man doing push ups. Conversely, the representation of women in emojis was as dancers, teachers, princesses or getting beauty treatments such as a haircut or a massage. Apple’s gendered assumptions did not end here. As reported by Business Insider, certain models of the iPhone have faced criticism for commonly being too large for a woman’s hand.
This gendered data gap has followed women into the workplace. Many office buildings follow Fanger’s 1970 ‘Thermal Comfort Equation’ in deciding what temperature to set their thermostat to. This is supposed to be the most comfortable temperature to work in, calculated by the average skin temperature, sweat evaporation and general activity. However, this experiment was only conducted on men, who on average have a higher body mass than women and wear a full suit to work. However, women usually have a lower body mass and often wear fewer layers to work such as stockings and sleeveless tops rather than suits. Thus, women often find offices too cold. In fact, according to expert in the gendered data gap Caroline Criado-Perez, modern offices are, on average, five degrees too cold for women.
Having the default set to male is particularly worrying in the medical profession. For example, the parameters for many diagnoses are based on common male symptoms, meaning that women are far more likely to go undiagnosed. For example, since autism presents differently in men and women, women often get diagnosed with autism much later than men due to emblematic autisic behaviours being predominantly male. Professor Francesca Happé of King’s College London warns that often autism in women is overlooked since “what we think we know about autism from research is actually just what we know about male autism”. Further, women have a 50% greater chance of receiving an inaccurate heart attack diagnosis. Again, this results from heart attack symptoms being based on heart attack symptoms in men.
Ignoring the female experience in data also endangers women on roads. Crash-test dummies used to evaluate a car’s safety mechanisms are modelled off the physique and driving posture of the average man. The most common model for a crash test dummy weighs 76kgs, is 1.77m tall and reflects an average male’s weight distribution. Although men statistically are involved in more car crashes than women, when a woman is in a car crash, she is 71% more likely to be moderately injured, 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die in the collision. According to Stanford’s ‘Gendered Innovations’ study, women tend to sit further forward on the seat and more upright when they are driving compared to men so as to comfortably reach the pedals and see over the dashboard. This position deviates from the ‘standard position’ that car crash mechanisms are tested against. Further, ‘ScienceNordic’ has found that women are more vulnerable to whiplash since the car seats are too firm to account for women’s lighter body weights.
The gender data gap also endangers women at work. Workplace injury has been greatly studied in male dominated industries. For example, we are well versed on the dangers of working in mines, construction and farming. We have all most likely seen WorkSafe advertisements that feature misfired nail guns, severed hands and unconscious men on the workshop floor. Feminised industries have often gone ignored. Canadian researcher into women’s health, Anne Rochon Ford, has done extensive investigation into industries that expose women to toxic chemicals that have been under-researched in the past. For example, she has hasarded that the long term effects of working as a nail technician with constant low exposure to phthalates are unknown and potentially ominous, particularly for pregnant women.
Safety equipment has historically been designed for men. Whilst traditionally roles in the emergency services have been dominated by men, as women started to fill these ranks, no one has thought to update the protective gear. The Trades Union Congress of the UK found in their 2017 report into personal protective equipment (PPE) that straps on safety harnesses and fittings on masks are designed to keep male bodies safe. Often, this means that safety equipment is ill-fitting for women. This same report found that only 5% of women in emergency services say that their PPE has never impeded their work. Equipment such as stab vests, hi-vis jackets and body armour were all cited as causing issues.
Gendered assumptions extend beyond the realm of data and into the vernacular itself.
Mauve vs Purple:
The language we use colours the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. Through language, we produce the mental images that give meaning to abstract words and phrases. We should also see language as a social process, where habits and values are crystallized. The progessive gender attitudes found in law and policy are lagging behind in the languages we speak.
There are three types of languages around the world, gendered languages (like French and Hebrew), neutral languages (like English), and genderless languages (like Mandarin). Researchers have found that gendered language countries often have the least egalitarian attitudes towards gender, although this intersects with other factors like culture and education. The privileging of male experience in gendered language is demonstrated in Hindi, where wives often use the formal ‘aap’ meaning ‘you’ to address their husbands, while the men use the informal ‘tum’. In French, most professional nouns are male. A female minister is referred to using the masculine noun: ministre, with the female definite article: la. The masculinisation of professional nouns in French exposes the underlying dichotomy between public and private worlds, which decreases women’s feelings of confidence and belonging in the workplace. It also presumes that women must be masculinised, and become less feminine to participate in the workforce. A woman must surrender the part of her that is feminine, i.e. being a mother, to enter the public world, while a man can both work and father, and is expected to do so. The French language uses feminine nouns for domestic objects like washing-machine, towel and lamp, and masculine nouns for numbers, metals and days of the week. These differences shape the way we imagine the world around us, associating male and female characteristics with the gendered realms of public and private life.
However, this linguistic dichotomy is not limited to gendered languages. Even neutral languages like English produce uneven ways of thinking. Since early childhood, little boys and girls are spoken to differently, and taught how to speak differently. Young girls are spoken to softly, referred to as princesses and flowers. While little boys are told they need to be strong, and speak with confidence. Boys and girls are also socialised differently in their friendship groups. Friendship between girls emphasizes rapport, while boys value authority and status. Confident and assured young girls are called ‘bossy’, while shy and timid boys are called ‘girls’. These processes produce men and women with a different vocabulary, and a binary way of thinking about gender in adulthood. As adults, women are more likely to use emotive words like ‘mauve’ and ‘adorable’, men are more likely to use ‘purple’ and ‘great’. A man who describes a freshly painted wall as ‘mauve’, or a silk dress as ‘turquoise’ is seen as a defective male, or else someone who works in fashion or painting. Interestingly, men’s language is being used increasingly by women, but not the other way around. Meanwhile, women are entering into traditionally male roles like doctors and lawyers, while men are not moving into caring or secretarial roles. Does this contradiction reflect a societal fear of deconstructing the hegemonic male identity? Is language helping to perpetuate male dominance?
The gendered nature of language disadvantages women in the workplace. From a young age, women are socialised to feel less comfortable taking up space, promoting their skills, and talking about themselves. As a result, women are less likely to be perceived as confident during job interviews. Women have also reported feeling discomfort in taking credit for their ideas, and they are more likely to use the term ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ when referring to collaborative work. Studies of men and women in positions of power have even found differences in leadership styles: women were more likely to grant praise before providing feedback, and men were less likely to apologise for their mistakes. One researcher observed:
The lawyer in whose office I was sitting accidentally elbowed the telephone and cut off the call. When his secretary got the parties back on again, I expected him to say what I would have said: “Sorry about that. I knocked my phone with my elbow.” Instead, he said, “hey what happened? One minute you were there; the next minute you were gone!” This lawyer seemed to have an automatic impulse not to admit fault if he didn’t have to.
Women’s language, being less authoritative and more reflexive, makes it difficult for women to take up traditionally male leadership roles, where men’s language is the norm. This has only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study by Cornell University, students that identified as women were less likely to unmute themselves during zoom classes. Girls are taught not to interrupt, and told their opinions are invalid (as much as we hate to admit it), and as a result, they are more likely to wait for someone else to speak first.
The professional lexicon prioritises men, and without even lifting a finger, women are excluded and disadvantaged.
“75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers” – KPMG Report.
‘Imposter syndrome’ is a psychological term that refers to a pattern of behaviour whereby people, regardless of their often tangible evidence of success, experience doubt of their abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. The term wasn’t officially coined until 1978 (by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes), but it’s safe to assume that it has always been felt by women and minority groups – who often lack sufficient role models of success. Its prevalence is widespread across many domains of achievement, from the commercial world to academia and medicine – all those areas one cringingly associates with the label “traditionally masculine field”.
One of the most challenging aspects of imposter syndrome stems from failing to properly recognize one’s own abilities and competencies. Not only has this tendency been widely reported by many high-achieving women across industries, but it has also been studied in empirical psychological research, as a form of attribution bias. Studies have found that women tend to judge their performance as worse than they objectively are, while men on the other hand tend to overestimate their own performance.
Much of the existing narrative on imposter syndrome focuses on individualised solutions. When you simply google “imposter syndrome”, many articles ascribe the origins of the syndrome to character traits such as perfectionism, and prescribe solutions including reframing one’s thoughts and consulting friends and colleagues. While these strategies may be a useful redress for many women, they are indicative of the underlying public focus on treating the symptoms, rather than the causes of the syndrome. Indeed, the mere fact that the concept is called a ‘syndrome’ feeds the misconception that the problem arises from the self, rather than as a result of social conditioning and lived experience of inequality.
Imposter syndrome, in many ways, is analogous to another, related, epidemic—that of clinician frustration—often termed burnout. Studies show that a third to half of medical students and clinicians are experiencing depression and anxiety, much higher rates than those observed among their nonphysician peers. A single such affected physician can be prescribed medication, encouraged to seek talk therapy, or asked to take a therapeutic leave of absence. But at the aggregate level, administrators are acknowledging that they have a part to play in addressing the structural environment—long hours, rising caseloads, and an increase in administrative tasks related to electronic medical records, which can contribute to frustration. As the syndrome of frustration and “burnout” gains increasing recognition in the public forum, the onus of working toward a solution shifts from the individual to the group.
Applying this paradigm from research into clinician frustration in the medical industry, a more effective public response to imposter syndrome ought to view it less as a personal challenge, but as a systematic problem with real, detrimental consequences for those affected. Accordingly, it constitutes an issue to be confronted at the organizational level with serious engagement from leadership and investment in both cultural transformation and policy change. While the focus of this piece is not to endorse any particular policy proposal, more effective public policy ought to directly target the causes, rather than the symptoms, of imposter syndrome.