Recently, I was contacted by a law student at Arizona State University. She and her friends noticed that all the winners of the Oplinger Closing Argument Competition since at least 2005 have all been tall, thin/muscular, white males. She asked me to share my thoughts on this phenomenon.
To be fair, I must disclose that the majority of people who participate in this competition are men, so based on pure numbers, it’s more likely that a man will win. It raised a red flag for me when I heard that all the judges in the finals for this year’s competition were white men. It made me wonder if the judges picked the best performer or if they were biased towards individuals who looked and sounded like them.
There is a general bias towards tall white men in our society. NPR reports that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts and obese women make 12% less than thinner women. The shoe lift industry is thriving because taller people generally hold higher status jobs and are assumed to be more intelligent.
I have to be mindful of my own bias. If you look at my professional rolodex, the majority of my contacts are men. In my defense, I generally lean towards people who are leaders, low-drama, sci-fi geeks, and improv performers. This leads to having a lot more men in my sandbox than women. But, when it comes to picking a professional where gender is irrelevant, like a dentist or an accountant, I need to make sure don’t automatically pick a man.
In thinking about gender bias, I was reminded of a trial I watched during my summer with the Army JAG. The prosecuting attorney was a woman who was maybe 5 feet tall and 110 pounds. The defense attorney, Eric Mayer, towered over her at 6+ feet tall with broad shoulders, a chiseled jaw, and a stance that oozed confidence. I was completely intimidated by him. Both attorneys put on good cases and the defendant was ultimately convicted, but if you didn’t hear the case and only saw a snapshot of the courtroom, most people would suspect that the defense was going to win.
As professional speakers, men have an advantage. It’s easier for them to command a room because they generally take up more space and have deeper voices. They are socialized to be more assertive than women. Conversely, women are socialized to be nice. They take up less space, especially when they’re teetering on heels, and their professional appearance requires them to be attractive, but not too pretty or sexy. They generally use more qualifying statements and smile at inappropriate times.
Some women face an uphill battle when they want to establish themselves as professionals. Women have to be more mindful of how they talk compared to men. Everyone has an upper and lower voice. Most men speak in their lower voice; women have a tendency to speak in their upper voice. This makes them sounds more child-like and less professional. Women who up-talk are worse. If you up-talk, I will tune you out because the sound of your voice annoys me.
And women need to figure out how their boobs factor into their professional appearance. Big boobs can get you free drinks, but they can be a hindrance to moving up the corporate ladder as many people associate bigger breasts with lower intelligence or being less professionally focused. I’m very grateful I pass the pencil test.
Unfortunately, gender bias will not go away overnight, and I encourage everyone – men and women – to confront it when it occurs. According to my source, a judge at the Oplinger competition told one of the women that she was “too aggressive for a female.” Another female competitor reported that a judge told her that he docked points because she didn’t wear a skirt. I hope both those women told those judges to fuck off.
- Women’s month highlights achievements of females and ongoing gender bias (examiner.com)
- We’re all Hens: Sweden Introduces Gender-Neutral Pronoun (neatorama.com)
- The War on Gender (knnaumann.wordpress.com)