Computing Gender Bias

By Rothschild, Bertram | The Humanist, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Computing Gender Bias


Rothschild, Bertram, The Humanist


Women have moved forward over the last fifty years. In fact, their progress over just this period may be unprecedented in the history of the world. After all, as columnist Molly Ivins tells us, women have gone from earning 69 percent of men's income to 74 percent. At that rate of increase, equal pay will be reached some time in the twenty-second century. Ta-da!

We can cheerfully await the time when women receive up to 84 percent, 99 percent, and--who knows--maybe even 99.44 percent of what men earn. Will women ever achieve absolute parity or even surpass men? I don't know. I do know there is considerable cultural lag, which keeps women in their place. This lag becomes more apparent when people, in unison, express themselves in terms of some all-absorbing event.

For example, everyone knows his or her place in war. A January 2000 Denver Post photo of some Chechnyan children illustrates this point. The photo shows three children, aged somewhere between eleven and thirteen (perhaps a bit older but suffering from malnutrition). Two of them--the boys--are holding assault rifles but don't look ferocious; they look pleased with themselves. They, after all, are precursors of their elders and no doubt look forward to growing into manhood so they, too, can fight the enemy. There is no way to tell from the photo if the boys are currently engaged in battle, but if not now surely not long from now.

The third child is a girl--clearly a child, not a young woman. She is wearing a sweater festooned with hearts. Not looking at the boys, she is sweetly smiling (self-consciously?) at the camera. Unlike the boys, who appear like anticipatory specialists at killing, she isn't holding a weapon. Her place in Chechnyan society seems clear: she is a generalist providing food, sex, children, warmth, emotional comfort, and mourning in the background while the boys provide specialized skills in the foreground.

That was the United States fifty years ago. But surely things are now different in our society, as women keep advancing upward toward the status of men.

For example, it won't be long before women in the United States are accepted as full-fledged members of the infantry. They will--quite differently from the Chechnyan girl--be trained to kill and, should the occasion arise, be expected to. At last they will have achieved equality! As privates they will receive the same pay as their male comrades; women and men alike will share the goal of achieving the combat infantry badge.

Despite such progress, however, are we assured that the United States differs profoundly from such "primitive" societies as Chechnya and that gender discrimination here is nearly an amusing, antique memory? I hope so, but I suspect that our core discrimination will endure for longer than we wish. We are immured in our archaic attitudes; they sneak up and confront us when we least expect it.

Christmas, like war, also unites people in an all-absorbing common identity --the holiday spirit of consumerism--and, again, our gender beliefs become apparent. This past Christmas season, Mattel offered at reasonable prices two versions of the same computer for young children. (Please pay close attention, as there will be a quiz later.)

One version was gray and festooned with deep pink flowers (some sort of daisy, I think), as were the keyboard, speakers, and compact-disc case. On the monitor was a picture of a sweet-faced, yellow-haired doll enclosed in a scalloped pink circle, decorated with pretty pins that seemed suitable for a sweater. The overall impression was one of a quiet and peaceful lifestyle, perhaps of a young person picking flowers. …

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