Unconscious Bias: The 17% Statistic
There’s a strange phenomenon I recently learned about: when women take up 17% of a room, men firmly believe that there’s an equal presence of the sexes. And when 33% of the people in a room are women, men think that the women are the overwhelming majority.
What could be an explanation for these instances? I’ve recently learned about some lesser known, underlying statistics that keep cropping up when we look at gender ratios and representation in media and films. The ratio of men to women in family movies is 3:1, and of the characters with careers, an overwhelming 81% are male. And the most shocking number of all: in most crowd scenes, women only make up 17% of the cast. There is no clear-cut 50/50 representation of women and men when you observe virtually any statistic across the board for media portrayal. In our tech-infused world, there is no denying that from our beginning steps, we begin to gradually absorb the media around us — whether it be from the children’s TV shows we grow up watching, the G-rated kid-friendly movies of later childhood, or the Hollywood blockbusters that we eagerly await every summer — and that this reinforces subconscious biases over the years through the power of repeated imagery.
But what’s truly troubling are the other areas in which the 17% statistic becomes apparent: in Congress, on Fortune 500 boards, law partner ratios, and tenured professors. At USC, aggregated data shows that from 1998-2012, though 92% of white males in Dornsife were awarded tenure, only 55% of women and minorities became tenured. Even though the two scopes — female presence in films we watch growing up, and women in professional leadership roles — seem unrelated, it’s no wonder there’s a vast divide, when from our youth, the 17% pattern is imprinted subconsciously onto us and standardized to be the norm. As a child grows up and such a norm becomes more and more ingrained into what he or she expects to be represented in society over the years, the biases that are developed may be indirect, but have profound consequences. Back to my earlier example — the gender imbalance, stuck at 17%, becomes so normalized, that men intuitively perceive that the 17% of women in the room somehow equals 50% of those present.
Beyond calling for a greater presence of women in the film industry and urging prominent directors to take a stand for equal representation in media, I think there are steps we can take in our daily encounters that can counteract the gender biases that have affected all our perceptions of society. I want to encourage everyone, especially my male friends, to be conscious of the gender balances in a room and whether enough women are being incorporated in the current conversation. Right now, we’re lucky enough to be at an elite university in which classroom gender ratios are equal, more or less (not including STEM-related areas), but in the working world, when looking at positions of authority and leadership, women only hold a quarter of managerial positions. Let’s all try to be aware of the discrepancies, keep our unconscious biases in check, and challenge the status quo.