Friday, January 24, 2014

Perform disturbing gender experiments on yourself

I've written before on this blog about being a woman composer. In case it isn't blindingly obvious to everyone who stops by, I'm a proud feminist, and being part of the struggle for equal rights and equal respect for people of different genders, races, and sexualities is one of the things I am proud and happy to do with my life.

Something that has always bugged me is the way the Western human brain, as it's currently encultured, is pretty bad at judging quantitative equality. In smaller words: our society is so geared towards white men that we have trouble noticing when minorities are underrepresented. Most of us can look at, for example, a room full of American Congressmen and not feel particularly concerned that it is only 18% female.

This has been reported most recently thanks to the efforts of Geena Davis (who is the fucking bomb). She has established a whole institute devoted to gender in media whose job it is to point out uncomfortable truths such as: only one-third of speaking roles in films are for female characters. So for every woman speaking, there are two men. One of the statistics she highlights is particularly fascinating:
Crowd scenes [in films] are only 17% female; one study found that men have come to perceive that 17% ratio as 50/50.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I sometimes feel that women in music are lost in a sea of men (with brown hair and glasses). I feel a responsibility to be more visible to set an example and make up for the fact that there are so few women writing new art music. The trailing edge of that visible sword is that once the number of women reaches about 17%, a lot of observers—who aren't actually counting, but just looking—will think that equality has been reached. No more to be done here! Women have all the representation they need now, right?

Are you a comfortable feminist? Feel like scaring yourself a little? Next time you find some kind of gender-neutral "list" of people, scan it and try to decide what the percentage of women to men is. I came across this silly list "49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art" on the horribly named website "" [shudder]. Hey, it was linked on a Reddit forum; I was curious who had been included.

I scanned through the list very quickly, taking particular note of the musicians. But when I reached the end, I suddenly thought of the statistics on female representation and perception and saw an opportunity to test myself.

Stop. Don't look at the list again for a minute. Did you feel that women were well represented? Yes, I thought to myself. It ... it seemed pretty even, didn't it? I began dreaming up a theory that perhaps women, being members of traditionally the more social gender and the gender which, at least when I was a kid, was prone to keeping diaries, were on equal footing when it came to blogging about their experiences as artists. Certainly, I read blogs by just as many women as men, don't I? Don't I? Amanda Palmer! That's who I immediately think of when I consider artists who have used their blogs to connect with their audiences. She was on the list, of course. And there were lots of other women there too, from many different disciplines. There were even some women of color. The leading picture was even a ... clown woman with a megaphone (that's an analysis for another day). So it must have been fairly close to even.

OK, time to tally. No cheating.

There were actually 50 people on the list, since one of the entries was a husband-wife team.

Number of women: 18.
Number of men: 32.

SHIT. My heart = on the floor.

It's not quite a 1:2 ratio, but it's close enough.

I am a feminist who considers herself aware of issues of female underrepresentation. But I'm also part of a culture where I have internalized this warped perception, where I see a pie divided into two-thirds and one-third, and I think it's split right down the middle.

Everyone should do this. You have to catch yourself after you look at a crowd, though, to make sure you aren't subconsciously counting. Do it so you understand how far we have to go.

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