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Jan 27 2013

When Denial Is Progress

Bernice Sandler spoke at last year’s Women in Secularism conference. The title of her talk was “The Chilly Climate”, and it covered (in brief) her decades of researching the ways in which women’s contributions are treated as less valuable than men’s.

In some ways, the talk was sobering. We’re not talking about blatant sexism–for the most part. The behaviors involved are subtle, easy to overlook unless you’re paying specific attention, and they are often invisible as just the way things are done. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have real effects.

Depressing, right? Or perhaps “chilling”.

However, Sandler hasn’t just studied the problem.

She’s also studied solutions. She gives a number of them in her talk, but the one that struck me most was simply naming the problem.

Telling those around her that they were treating men and women unequally didn’t result in tearful confessions or promises to do better. As I noted above, these behaviors aren’t generally deliberate. The people Sandler spoke to denied, in fact, that they did what she had observed them doing. But it didn’t matter. They still changed their behavior. They made a conscious effort not to do the problematic behavior.

So the next time someone tells you that they didn’t do what you watched them do, don’t get too discouraged. By simply telling them what you observed, you may have changed the world in a small way.

For more information on Sandler’s reasearch, and more practical tips for combatting this sort of unconscious sexism, check out her website.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    phil zombi

    This is probably my favorite talk from WiS1. It was descriptive and prescriptive. It was alternately sobering and encouraging. These conversations about biases (conscious or not) are vital to combating sexism in the secular movement. Nobody ( or almost nobody) changes their mind right away. Self-awareness takes time to set in to the defensive mind.

    PS – I am so damned excited for WiS2

  2. 2
    Steven Rowlinson

    Well I don’t think its great that people will flat out deny it when you call them out on their gerneral arsehole behaviour, the fact the they subconciously get it gives us some measure of hope I suppose.

  3. 3
    LeftSidePositive

    And it’s also things like this that make me highly skeptical of the “Well you can’t just tell people their faith is wrong because they’ll dig in their heels more!” argument. Yes, of course people will put up defenses in the short term–the question is might it be getting through on some level? (and does it get through better or worse than when they aren’t confronted?)

  4. 4
    Captaintripps

    While I’d say I’m familiar with the ways women and men are treated differently in discussion, Sandler had a new one for me when I watched this yesterday. Men are praised for talent; women for hard work. I’ll keep an eye out for that one. The interruptions are the most aggravating to me and have been since I was introduced to that idea some years ago. I’ve made an effort to stamp that out where possible in professional situations.

  5. 5
    mildlymagnificent

    I’d agree with giving the message even when you’re pretty sure it’s not going to change anything on the day. A lot of people hold back, feeling that they won’t be able to get the point across to the person who’s blindly, or blithely, stepping on them. But it really is worth it. Firstly because others who aren’t directly addressed may hear and understand and act accordingly. Secondly, you have to accept that people rarely turn their minds or their behaviours around in a single movement. It takes time, and repetition, and introspection, or intellectual consideration, or lots of other things.

    Most importantly, someone, somewhere, sometime has to plant the seed that may only blossom when the message has been delivered a dozen or more times. If you’re lucky you are the dozenth, otherwise you can be content that you’re contributing to a change that you may, but may not, be an eventual beneficiary of.

  6. 6
    doublereed

    I’ve realized this more and more. People really are capable of change, even if they’re “stubborn.” People may not change rapidly, or even noticeably, but they do certainly change their beliefs over time. And though people defend or deny what they do initially, many times they simply haven’t really considered their own beliefs or behaviors.

    It makes me think of that line from Inception, that an idea is like a virus, growing and festering and possibly consuming you. Except in a good way :D

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