A study conducted by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian found that at age 5 children thought boys and girls were relatively similar levels of smartness. However, by age 6, young girls had internalized the idea that boys were much smarter, and were persuaded against activities they thought were only for “smart” individuals. This phenomenon is not unique, and girls are conditioned from a young age to believe they are inferior to men. In her book The Authority Gap, Mary Ann Seighart explores this phenomenon and explains some of the reasons women aren’t taken seriously before giving solutions to this issue. Because at the end of the day, if we are unable to first identify the root cause of gender inequities, we will be unable to effectively fight against it.
Seighart begins by showing how influential women like Mary McAleese (former president of the Republic of Ireland), Elaine Chao (US Transportation Secretary under Trump), and herself have constantly been undermined and mistreated by others, especially those who don’t know their position or background. This authority gap extends to all aspects of our life, determining how we prioritize issues in our country and how we instill gender norms in younger generations.
The authority gap, put simply, is when men are treated with more respect and credibility than a woman, despite having equal or fewer qualifications. A prime example of this is seen in an example Seighart uses, in which researchers sent identical applications to science professors at top universities: the only variable that was different was the gender listed on the application. Though the applications were identical, the male applications were offered a higher starting salary, career mentoring, and were assumed to be more qualified than the female applicants. On the other hand, female applicants were either rejected or were asked for further evaluations, like teaching evaluations. However, being extraordinary in their given field could act as a buffer against bias, but this doesn’t actually “solve” the authority gap. Until women no longer have to work twice as hard to earn the same respect and authority as men do, the authority gap and related gender inequities will continue to exist.
Even women like Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Michelle Bachelet, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Chile have faced this underestimation during their time in high ranking positions, being asked how “difficult” their job was and having men talk over them at meetings. Women, especially those in STEM fields, are treated as if they aren’t qualified enough to hold their positions and face constant sexism. Even when they’re at the top, their ideas aren’t taken as seriously as a male colleagues ideas, which can dissuade women from pursuing jobs in these fields. For women of color, this phenomenon is even worse, and Black women’s voices often go unheard compared to white women.
While it may be easy to attribute this unconscious bias as something that only affects men, people of all genders find themselves victim to this issue. From a young age, people are taught that “it’s okay” to interrupt girls over boys, and this follows them through adulthood. Parents are more likely to interrupt their daughters than their sons, and boys start to normalize interrupting girls and girls start to expect interruption in social situations. Women are trained to be compliant and polite, while boys are taught to be confident and assertive. This can be dangerous, because even today, we see how issues pertaining to the male population are heard more than women’s and other gender minorities’ issues, and legislation by our government reflects that.
Seighart emphasizes how promoting gender equity doesn’t hurt men, rather it helps them, as well as the nation as a whole. Female managers are more engaged than their male counterparts, boosting productivity within the company. In fact, a 2019 report by McKinsey and Company shows that more gender diverse companies were 25% more likely to earn above-average profits than ones with very few women. Having diversity within companies and groups can help make better decisions. Especially when looking at our government today, having more diverse voices be respected and listened to could help boost equity measures and could also help pass legislation that truly benefits all American people, not just a select few.
Women often have a difficult time exerting influence, especially in the professional sphere, as men take up room and often leave women out of important conversations. This has disastrous impacts, and women’s views are dismissed in favor of men’s. This explains why rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence is under-reported, under-prosecuted, and often ignored by the police. Additionally, men often avoid listening to female voices. Especially today, in a world where social media uses complex algorithms to give us content we’re interested in, it can be easy to surround ourselves in an echo chamber. This can lead to men only hearing other male voices, while ignoring the voices and issues of women and other gender minorities. Seighart recommends a simple solution to this issue, by encouraging everyone to read more books and articles written by women and to actively listen for female voices in the media.
While the authority gap is still a very prevalent issue globally, Seighart provides some solutions that can help reduce internal prejudices that affect us to narrow this gap. The first step is to acknowledge any bias we may have against others, and work towards moving against stereotypes and preventing that bias from impacting our perceptions of people. We should also listen to women the same way we listen to men, and stop ourselves from challenging women more than men. We can also ensure that female and other gender minority voices are being heard just as much as our own. In addition to this, surrounding ourselves by diverse voices can help us understand various issues that we may not have personal experience with. This responsibility falls on all genders, not just one. We should constantly call out sexist or discriminatory behavior and speak out for our rights.
The authority gap is more present than ever when looking at our government today. Women’s issues are constantly looked over, whether it’s sexual assault cases, abortion, or equal rights in the workplace. As individuals, it’s important we call out legislators and policy makers and ensure that female voices are being heard. This involves voting for qualified female candidates and ensuring that female issues are given just as much attention as other issues. As extempers, we can advocate for this attention in our speeches. While a seven minute speech may not seem that important, we truly do play a role in shaping the future, and more importantly in changing our audience’s world view. Additionally, it can be easy to forget the privilege many of us have when it comes to gender equity, as a lot of us have been given a platform to freely share our voices. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone is given the same opportunities that we have been offered, and diverse voices truly do change the world. For those who aren’t being treated fairly at tournaments, talk to coaches and other members on your team. While it may be hard to change the system alone, working with others can help change how people are treated at tournaments. For judges, be sure to check for biases when ranking individuals, and make sure you’re truly ranking speakers on their skill rather than their perceived excellence.