Thursday, July 7, 2016

Blindspot: When it comes to women, how famous is famous?

When I first created this blog's Famous Speech Friday series, and later the collected posts in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women, I emphasized the word "famous." It was important to me that the speech, and not necessarily the woman giving it, be famous to some extent. I did that because I wanted to include not just the speeches of celebrities, or someone's ranking of "best" speeches--the kind that often ignores the speeches of women--but to collect speeches with impact, by women of all kinds.

I also was reacting to questions I received from speechwriters and speaker coaches when I started the blog, asking whether I could find and share any famous speeches by women more recent than Eleanor Roosevelt or Barbara Jordan--both of whom died decades ago. I was astonished by these questions and ready to prove that famous speeches by modern (and historic) women did, indeed, exist. How had the others missed them?

Some of the early reviews of this collection by men went right after the word "famous" to dispute its importance. The Index was a nice idea, I was told in published reviews and even to my face, but the speeches weren't actually famous, even though nearly all of them have had audiences in the millions, either for the speech or its later coverage, or both. In this, I'm in good company: Kanye West just took credit for Taylor Swift's fame, saying "I made that bitch famous" in his latest video.

So you can imagine that my ears pricked up at this interview with Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, an expert on what is called "implicit bias." With Anthony Greenwald, she is the author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and she studies our unconscious minds. Among her experiments is one that teases out the bias against associating women with fame:
I made the discovery that people make judgments about the fame of a name. "How famous is this name?" And it turns out if you’ve heard a name that you could randomly sort of pull out of the phone book, you know — "Sebastian Weissdorf." If I hear the name or if I’ve seen it somewhere in some irrelevant context and then two days later I’m asked, "Is this a famous person?" I’m more likely to say yes. 
So there’s a kind of a lingering perceptual what we might call fluency for that visual stimulus. And I just did that same study except that I thought I’ll use both names of men and women and discovered, to my great astonishment and my colleague Tony Greenwald’s astonishment, that women’s names did not become famous overnight in this study. So we thought, oh, so the underlying perceptual fluency can be exactly the same, but at the point of making a decision — "Is this famous?" — some other standard is being used. If female, not famous. If male, famous. And people were doing this without awareness. So I would quiz all 400 of them. “Did you use the gender of the name in making your choice?” “Absolutely not.”
Banaji also unpacks the famous riddle about a father and son who are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene; the son is brought to the hospital for surgery. The surgeon says, "I can't possibly operate on this child. He's my son!" So who was the surgeon? Most people come up with a convoluted reason why the surgeon is a male. The correct answer, that the surgeon is his mother, is missed by 80 percent of those answering, men and women alike. (You can test your own implicit bias at her group's Project Implicit website.)

Banaji says, "If 100 percent of surgeons were men, this would not be a bias. This would be a fact. And I’ve talked to doctors who work in hospitals where 80 percent of the entering class of surgeons are women. And they don’t get the right answer. That’s what you mean by monolith. What is it about our minds that doesn’t allow us to get to an obvious right answer? Because there’s almost like a firewall in our minds that the stereotype really is. It won’t let us traverse into the domain of the right answer because there’s a wall. And that wall is just sort of keeping us from getting there."

That explains to me why people can read about these famous speeches and the measures I use to determine that, but still see women's speeches as "not famous." It's a bias aided by the centuries of preventing women from speaking at all, a bias that continues with today's all-male panels and the low proportion of women speakers at conferences. No wonder we can't call to mind famous speeches by women more recent than Eleanor Roosevelt. That monolithic bias is in the way. And it's being furthered in our technology, as the white-male-dominated tech industry builds bias into artificial intelligence and algorithms that guide what we read, see, and do.

For me, I'll keep calling the speeches we collect on this blog "famous," because--using unbiased measures like audience size and publicity--they are famous. No matter what you think.

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.