A few years ago I was on the 5pm Friday night Qantas flight from Melbourne to Sydney. It was full of tired, grumpy business people in a hurry to get home.
As we came in to land at Sydney airport there was a lot of turbulence. We were bouncing and bumping all over the place and people were gripping their armrests.
Then we dropped through the air like a stone. I knew we were falling because everything that wasn’t strapped down flew up in the air. Hair went vertical, iPhones flew out of shirt pockets, my book flew up in the air and the Qantas iPads flew out of the seat pockets. I wasn’t scared exactly – more astonished. Then the pilot powered up the aircraft and we flew out of danger and back up into the air.
The (male) co-pilot spoke to us as we circled the airport and told us we had hit a wind sheer. When the wind settled down, we’d approach again and we’d all be on the ground (safely) soon. We approached again but the turbulence was still extreme. This time the atmosphere was grim. Some people vomited. Once again the landing was aborted and, eventually, we were diverted to Williamstown airbase where we landed safely. The crew led us in a round of applause for the pilot when we (finally and gently) hit the ground. It was the palpable relief of the crew that brought home just how close to disaster we had been.
It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered the pilot who was the worthy recipient of all that heartfelt applause was a woman; Captain Sharelle Quinn.
I had wondered during the flight why the pilot never spoke to us about the situation. We were kept informed but only by the co-pilot. When I discovered the flight had been captained by a woman, I wondered if she was silent because she was concerned how already frightened passengers might react to a female pilot.
Whatever Captain Quinn’s motivation, I think my story illustrates a hurdle that women as a gender still face – the training we all receive from childhood to not only put more trust in men in positions of power, but relate better to them.
This ‘unconscious bias’ has been backed up by copious amounts of research and it remains the reason why so few women have so far been able to get to the top of just about anything you care to name. And it is why women who do get ahead are given no latitude. Any mistake is seen as proof of incompetence because it confirms our bias that women are better suited to subservient roles while men are meant to lead. This bias is so ingrained we often don’t even know we have it.
As Geena Davis and her Institute on Gender in Media has revealed – this bias begins in childhood. Girls are trained early to listen to male voices and relate to male experiences. Boys are trained to explicitly reject female ones. A baby girl can wear any colour and play with any toy. We rather admire the tomboy. Try doing the same with your son by dressing him in pink, painting his nails or letting him play with dolls, for example, and you will tap into real anxiety.
A friend was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with her 3-year-old son recently. (He has rather lovely, long curly hair.) She was reading a fashion magazine and he was asking his mother questions about the clothes featured. This interchange made a nearby patient uncomfortable.
“Boy or a girl?” They asked, pointing at her son.
“Well why are you talking to him about women’s fashion then?”
This wasn’t a question, by the way, it was an accusation.
Here’s another example. In ‘Finding Nemo’ there is only one female fish in the entire ocean and she can’t remember her name from one minute to the next. Indeed, Davis first began her research when, as the mother of a twin boy and girl, she noticed how many male role models there were in children’s film, TV and literature for her son and how few female one’s for her daughter.
As a copywriter in the ad industry I remember my own daughter turning to me after watching a TV ad break and asking;
“Don’t they think girls eat cereal?”
And she was right. I paid attention after her comment and ad after ad showed boys eating cereal and few if any girls. At first I wondered if this was because men generally write ads (I was an anomaly in creative departments back then. Sadly, I’d still be an anomaly now) and so channeled their own childhoods. I now think that while this is probably part of the problem (and another reason why we need more women in all walks of life) the major reason is less anodyne than that.
We are terrified of feminising men. This terror is so pervasive we cannot even cope with little boys imaginatively identifying with girls and women when it comes to something banal like eating cereal. As for singing “I’m a Single Lady” or dressing up like Elsa in ‘Frozen’ or playing with a figurine of Rey in Star Wars – well, that’s the end of civilization as we know it. We so despise the feminine that while we can just about cope with women becoming more like men (although, no matter how competent or expert they may be, we’ll still be more nervous if they are piloting the plane), we are panicked by the idea of men and boys becoming more like women. This, to me, is the basis of misogyny.
Last week, I gained a grandson. I will be painting his nails (for as long as he will let me), reading him stories about princesses and little girls, and letting him play with any toys he likes including dolls. I hope he can wear any colour he wants but also know eyebrows will be raised if he chooses pink. As he gets older I will read him Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden. They were my childhood favourites and I want to share them with him just as I would with a granddaughter.
Are you feeling anxious yet?