Gender Bias on the Web

Originally published in the Scotsman.

With a staggering array of choices for careers, many students and graduates turn to the internet for help. Universities have specific career-planning sections of their websites, and there are extensive student-advice websites with similar aims.

I discovered these sites while searching for postgraduate funding. On “Prospects: the UK’s Official Graduate Careers Website,” I stumbled across a page on term-time employment, with case studies of students who mixed and matched part-time jobs. But something was strange. Gigs for male students included lifeguard, security guard, video store clerk, lab technician, teaching assistant, gym attendant, and TV extra. Meanwhile, women’s roles were nurse’s aide, child minder, fashion model, belly dancer, and lap dancer – otherwise known as a stripper.

Hoping these sexist stereotypes were an unfortunate fluke, I began seeking case studies on similar websites. What I found was disturbing, but not surprising.

The “Connexions” student advice website mentioned women studying performance, marketing, and human resources, while men studied engineering and music management. Women were not listed in the “work” section, but jobs for men included mechanic, pilot, aviation engineer, and DJ. On the “finance” page, the only example of personal debt was a woman who’d overspent on clothing.

The University of Westminster profiled a male student who studied graphic design and became and marketing manager, and one who studied business and became an insurance salesman. His female counterpart became a secretary, and a woman who studied tourism became an events planner.

The Scottish Executive website gives case studies of students receiving aid. Featured men planned to study construction, joinery, photography, environmental science, computing, information technology, and media. The women had plans to study social care, office skills, and art. Among the men, one was married, and none had children. Among the women, one was married with a child, and another was single with two children.

While each case study shows only a mild gender bias, taken together they demonstrate a troubling uniformity. On these and other websites, male students are consistently represented as future breadwinners, studying higher-paid or higher-prestige subjects than their female counterparts. Their part-time jobs involve work with their hands and their brains, and post-university careers emphasise the knowledge economy, trades, and management. Female students, on the other hand, are depicted earning money with their bodies, or by caring for the bodies of others. They are portrayed as nurturers, studying “soft” subjects that prepare them for lower-paid careers in the service industries, and for support roles in business. Even when men and women are described working in similar fields, men are assumed to hold positions of greater self-determination and upward mobility.

Beyond careers, the number of mothers (and the absence of fathers) reinforces the assumption that women should bear sole responsibility for children.

Regardless of whether these biases are accurate, it’s disturbing to see sexism presented as an acceptable standard. Unfortunately, it fits very well with one of the many mixed messages received by young women: we are encouraged to attend university and plan careers, yet we are expected to choose service roles. It requires enormous drive and ambition for a young woman to pursue the kind of careers that men take for granted.

When faced with contradictory norms, it often seems most sensible to choose the safest option: the one that is easiest to imagine. It’s not simply an issue of political correctness. Without a coherent body of examples and role models, how can young women imagine themselves on a challenging career path? Even when we’re told to listen to our hearts, conflicting outside messages can be deafening.

1 Comment

  1. Jaskaranpreet
    13 April 2015

    That is an excellent point! According to a few stduies, role models and mentors do make a difference. I’m hoping to write more about this. One assessment called the athena factor looked at women in science/engineering/technology and did find that women who have sponsors were less likely to consider leaving the field than those without sponsors.

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