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My sexist education

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

Everyone is sexist. If you believe that you are unaffected by subconscious biases you are naïve. I too was once naïve.

If you had told me about the gender pay gap when I got my first job in the corporate world at the age of 19 I would have been shocked. Perhaps my employers would have been shocked too to hear that there was statistical evidence to support a worldwide phenomenon whereby women get paid less to do the same job as men. Perhaps such statistical evidence was not available in the late 1990s and so they believed there were valid and logical reasons why the individual women they employed just happened to earn less. No doubt we women were less confident and decisive in the workplace, which supported our lower salaries. And why wouldn’t we be less confident and more differential when we are taught from birth it's a man’s world? I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Looking back on my childhood education, my earliest role models were women: mothers and teachers. My father went off to the office every day and the domestic duties were left to my mother. Even though men are the stronger sex it was the mothers who were did all the heavy lifting: lifting the children, carrying the shopping, cleaning up after us.

At home on TV we watched men read news and play sport. The children watched shows in which boys were the main characters and read fairy tales in which girls are rescued by men. At church we were indoctrinated into a religion in which women are forbidden to lead. At school we were taught that Australian history commenced with the European invasion. We heard about European wars in which the fallen soldiers were heroes and the raped women were unmentioned. We read literature written by European men and looked at art made by European men. I was infatuated with the Impressionist artists. One such artist, Morisot was actually a woman, but I was so used to all artists being male, that I just presumed she’d been a man like all the rest. Because even though I was surrounded by women, I understood that in the real world, it was white men that did important things.

Landed by artist Leah Mariani

'Landed,' 2018, oil on cotton fabric.

Outside of school and home I’d see hyper sexualised images of women on advertising billboards, men’s magazine and calendars (It was the 1980s when paper girlie calendars hung on walls). At times these images made me feel uneasy, but I didn’t not yet have the vocabulary to articulate what I was feeling. I had not been introduced to terms like ‘objectification' and 'the male gaze'. That would come later.

We were told that women could achieve that same things as men and yet there was little evidence of this. Outside of school, family and shopping centres, women did not exist. Naively I thought my generation of women were going to change this simply by working hard, going to university and applying for jobs. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you, " said the bible.

"Sounds like a plan!" says I.

I had no idea that it was more complicated than that.

My understanding of the perception of women was learnt through art history. It starts with the paintings of the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Madonna, always in blue, like a Disney princess. She is a mother and a virgin. She looks kind and serine and she doesn’t seem to talk much. In Italian religious paintings we also see Eve who is presented as the evil temptress. She is beautiful and naked, with a snake for a friend.

A bit later in art history comes the Renaissance. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is typical of this time. Venus is sensuous and beautiful: the perfect woman with her long following hair, perky breasts, hairless limbs, fair skin and false modesty. And really, not much has changed since then, apart from the invention of feminists.

So there we have it: the mother, the young beauty and the evil temptress. These are stereotypes that appear again and again in stories, in religion and in modern advertising. Evidently there wasn’t enough room in the historical archives for the inclusion of well-rounded women who were intelligent and ambitious, as well as kind and motherly. And there was definitely no room in the Western history books for women of colour.

So if you think that you've come out of this education with a gender-neutral, objective view of the world you live in, you’re fooling yourself. Bias cannot be avoided and there are statistics to prove it.

With grant applications, for instance, there are different success rates for men and women. “The prestigious grants from the European Research Council, for example, consistently show that applications from women have a lower success rate than applications from men”[1].

In 1970 female musicians represented only 5% of the top five symphony orchestras in the United States. To address this, orchestras introduced blind auditions in which candidates are situated on a stage behind a screen and asked to play for a jury that cannot see them. According to the US National Bureau of Economic Research “blind auditions can explain between 25% and 46% of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970.” [2]

Imagine what could happen if all grant and job applications were blind to sex and race. Maybe my generation of women really could change the world simply by going to university and applying for jobs. It really should be that simple.

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