Articleequal opportunities - institutions - research - science

Addressing the hidden aspects
of gender inequality

foto Flickr/Colin Harris ADE

How can we make gender equality a concrete reality? How can we promote and achieve equality between women and men in responsibilities, social and or decision-making opportunities, access to and control over resources?

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As we know, gender inequality has more than one cause, but the fact that women are not recognized as trustworthy experts more often than men (namely, they are victims of epistemic injustice[1]) – contributes significantly to this phenomenon. The question of gender equality seems also to be connected to the issue of unconscious bias because epistemic injustice often results from prejudices or stereotypes. There is significant research indicating that people are affected by implicit bias, some of which relates to gender and sex. Gender bias affects the way we judge the quality of a woman’s work, speech, testimony and views. It shapes our expectations about men and women’s performance, so, for example, people believe that girls are poor at maths; men’s achievements tend to be rated more highly than women’s; and women’s work is evaluated more negatively than it deserves. Culturally we consider originality, excellence, leadership, intellectual ability as masculine traits and consequently associate these traits more with men than women. Of course, a woman may herself be implicitly biased and convinced that some traits are more typical of males, and even those who hold egalitarian beliefs may also have implicit bias[2].

But what kind of problem is the denial of women as experts? As outlined above, many women have problems in being identified as experts and have trouble being heard or taken seriously. As many authors maintain, it transpires that women belong to a social category that is systematically excluded from some realms of epistemic activity. This not only causes social or political harm, but also produces a form of epistemic harm and disadvantage. 

Let us consider, for example, the field of philosophy. The philosophical tradition has, implicitly or explicitly, provided a negative characterisation of ‘woman’ and ‘feminine’. According to many canonical philosophers, women are inferior to men (Cudd, 2005), and thus men are widely portrayed as more competitive than women, and women are seen as more nurturing than men; women and men communicate and think very differently; women regulate their actions by arbitrary inclinations and opinions, men use reason and logic to solve problems. Moreover, it is often argued that women are irrational because they are guided by feeling (not by reason) and are therefore unsuited to activities such as science. In such a context, it is plausible to think women are targets of epistemic injustice: they may feel uncomfortable; may become convinced they are not good at philosophy; may drop out of philosophy classes or abandon the idea of a career in academia. As result, some philosophical contexts undermine women’s performance because, in a context in which the common prejudice is that the women are not well equipped for philosophy, a woman is not able to perform just as well as a man or produce her best work.

Can we remedy these forms of injustice? What needs to change in our social practices and what we should do to help? It is possible to prevent or mitigate epistemic harm and disadvantage through training in a particular virtue or sensibility, namely the virtue of testimonial justice. This virtue can detect and correct the influence of prejudice on the hearer’s assessment of a speaker’s credibility[3]. It requires the development of critical awareness (social and reflective) which then allows us to consider the impact the prejudice has on the way we perceive our interlocutors, and to correct it. 

Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask how we could revise and improve our poor understanding of the complex social construct of authority and credibility to actively challenge the gender inequality of epistemic injustice? This could be done in different ways and there are some steps that can be taken to minimise or eliminate epistemic injustice and implicit bias.

First, all of us (including those with explicit egalitarian beliefs) need to be more aware of the phenomenon of unconscious bias and the ways in which implicit gender bias may affect us. We also need to challenge the narrowness of what is understood as “knowledge” and how “good knowledge” is evaluated. To my mind, the concept of knowledge should be considered in connection with notions such as trust, reliance and testimony. Moreover, we need to re-imagine what “authority”, “credibility” or “testimony” are, and revisit the ways in which we measure quality, ability, credibility and reliability. 

Two simple things we could do, for example, to promote the full inclusion of women in careers in fields such as philosophy are: 1) to avoid perpetuating the stereotyping of philosophy as male; and 2) stop evaluating women’s contributions as less good than men’s.  To do this, we should avoid organising all-male conferences, offer childcare at conferences,[4] put women’s writing on the school syllabus, invite women lecturers to speak, etc.  

We should also improve the environment for women to encourage them to participate more culturally and socially, and give them more visibility and mentoring. Furthermore, we should promote diversity and pluralism in knowledge production and culture. Another important remedy is to pose radical questions about our concepts of “being a competent knower” and our sense of who can be a trustworthy expert. This will allow us not only to enrich our understanding of the complex social construct of authority and credibility, but also go some way to addressing the challenge of gender equality. 

In conclusion, in my view, to tackle gender equality is to tackle epistemic injustice, namely the issues of how social identity affects the way (consciously or unconsciously) we operate in social practice and we establish our credibility or come (or fail to come) to exercise authority. 

 

NOTES

[1] The concept of epistemic injustice, introduced by Miranda Fricker (2007), refers to distinctively epistemic forms of injustice and relates to inequalities of social power. According to Fricker, such an injustice occurs when a hearer makes unfair judgments about the credibility of a speaker (or a group of individuals) as a giver of knowledge. More precisely, it is a kind of injustice in which someone is judged unfairly specifically in her capacity as an expert and informant. As many authors maintain, a person’s capacity for knowledge is essential to human value. Thus, when this is unfairly undermined, the person suffers an intrinsic injustice and is deprived of a fundamental element of respect.

[2] Saul 2014, p. 55

[3] Fricker 2007, pp. 82-94

[4] See the Gendered Conference Campaign

 

References

Cudd A.E. (2005), “Missionary Positions”, in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol. 20, no. 4.

Fricker M. (2007), Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Saul J. (2014), “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy”, in Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?, Fiona Jenkins and Katrina Hutchison (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.