Dismantling Gender Bias

Illustration by Jon Krause

Illustration by Jon Krause

AS WE APPROACH A PRESIDENTIAL election in which each candidate’s gender is sure to be discussed, it’s worth evaluating the automatic assumptions we—yes, all of us—make when it comes to women, men, and the meaning we attribute to gender. These assumptions include everything from outright sexism to subtler forms of gender bias, such as the knee-jerk association of men with “competence” and “gravitas,” women with “incompetence” and “emotion.”

“The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle,” writes Rebecca Solnit in the title chapter of Men Explain Things to Me, a 2014 collection of essays that helped coin the term “mansplain.” “This is a struggle that takes place in war-torn nations, but also in the bedroom, the dining room, the classroom, the workplace, and the streets.”

I would add, of course, that this battle also takes place in the church, our spiritual homes. After all, for women this is a struggle that’s older than feminism, perhaps as old as our faith traditions themselves. So how, exactly, can we end the battle?

The answer, it seems, lies in understanding the difference between explicit and implicit bias, the former resulting from deliberate stereotypes, the latter a growing topic in social science that doesn’t absolve us of guilt but helps us understand how biases of all kinds have been so difficult to identify, name, and change.

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Weekly Wrap 12.12.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Read the Torture Report
While its 525 pages — and disturbing subject matter — may cause you to opt for the news coverage and analysis, you can actually read the entire Torture Report yourself — even before Melville House Books ensures it’s on the shelves your local bookstore. Download now.

2. WATCH: John McCain’s Floor Speech on Torture
In case you do need some context on the importance of releasing this report, watch this floor statement by Arizona Sen. McCain, quite an authority on the matter. “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

3. Two Years Since Newtown: WATCH This Father’s Story
Sunday marks the two-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and six faculty and staff were killed. Mark Barden, the father of Daniel, 7, who was killed in the tragedy, tells his powerful story in this video. 

4. What MSU Protesters Are Really Fighting For
With all of the “controversy” over the Rolling Stone UVA rape story, it might be tempting to think that college campus sexual assault — and the mishandling of cases by college administrators — is not quite on the epidemic scale the piece made it out to be. (Y’know, kind of like when it’s cold outside and people say, “So much for ‘global warming!’” *facepalm*) But it’s not just one person’s story, and it’s not just UVA. Check out this piece to see what’s happening on another college campus.  


Seeking Greater Equality, Indian Women Turn to Unexpected Source: Shariah Courts

Khatoon Shaikh founded the all-female Shariah court in Mumbai. Religion News Service photo by Heather McIlvain.

Khatoon Shaikh had no formal education, never worked outside the home, and lived in the kind of neighborhood that many people might call a slum.

But when Shaikh witnessed her sister-in-law victimized, first at the hands of a violent husband, and again by a patriarchal justice system, she took charge.

Shaikh started her own Shariah adalat, a court based on Islamic law, just for women.

“We needed a place where women’s voices could be heard,” the mother of seven said.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, the court has moved from Shaikh’s home to a two-room office in the north Mumbai neighborhood of Bandra. And it now operates within a broader organization called BMMA, or Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, which Shaikh helped form in 2007.

Are You One of Us?

Priest during Mass, Gordan /

Priest during Mass, Gordan /

I attended a funeral last week and was struck by something that happened at communion.

The church was packed for a loving man who had touched many lives with his kindness. People from varied backgrounds and faiths came to celebrate his life and support his family. The eulogy noted that he never turned anyone away.

At communion time, several young adults from a different denomination got in line. When the first young man got to the priest, he received a question instead of a communion wafer. The priest said something to him. The young man looked surprised and shook his head. The priest traced a cross on his forehead and sent him away breadless.

On a day of shared grief, the young man had given the wrong answer to the age-old question: Are you one of us?

Empowering Women Empowers Us All

Watching the news cycle for the past week or so, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much the issue of poverty is being discussed. There have been many analyses of the successes and failures of the War on Poverty, the 50th anniversary of which we marked last week. But there is one report that has particularly fascinated me -- and many others -- as it describes how women have been struggling the most against poverty in the United States. In partnership with the Center for American Progress, this year's Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink examines the problem of poverty as it pertains to women and proposes solutions to eradicate it.

Gender-Based Abortions Spark Outrage in England

Gender symbols, SoulCurry /

Gender symbols, SoulCurry /

A group of Christian lawyers plans to sue two medical doctors who have raised a storm of controversy for arranging the abortion of female fetuses because the parents wanted boys.

Andrea Williams, CEO of the London-based Christian Concern, said her group would file suit against the doctors since the government declined to charge them.

In an Oct. 7 letter to the attorney general, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said the Abortion Act of 1967 “does not expressly prohibit gender specific abortions.”

Transgender Theology Professor Asked to Leave Christian College

Dr. H. Adam Ackley tells his students of his transgender identity, writing his preferred name on the board. Photo by Annie Z. Yu

A California Christian university has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave after he came out as transgender.

Heather Clements taught theology at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years, but this past year, he began referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” he said.

Ackley, who is in his third year of a five-year contract at a school that does not use the tenure system, said university policies seem to be silent about transgender issues, except that “Humans were created as gendered beings.”

Gender, Sex, and a Trans-Inclusive Common Good

Male, Female, and Transgender Gender Symbols. Photo courtesy Augusto Cabral/

I am privileged to have a body that fits my gender, and for the majority of my life I was unaware of this ingrained and assumed personal and public privilege. As is the case with many in our world, during my adolescent years I never realized that “gender” and “sex” were two different aspects of my male identity, or in the words of Virginia Prince, I was unaware that “… gender is what’s above the neck and sex is what’s below the neck.” In light of these often ignored differences between gender and sex, I have come to recognize that many in our world do not experience full harmony between the two, and the result is a significantly misunderstood and strikingly marginalized transsexual and transgendered community.

While the differences between gender and sex are complicated, and the various distinctions between cultural and biological identity constructs are ongoing, The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that 1 percent of all U.S. citizens are “trans.” However, as gender variance is rarely discussed in mainstream society, it would appear that far too many continue to make false generalizations based upon sensationalized media accounts of cross-dressing and transsexuality. As stated by Deborah Rudacille in The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights:

Gender variance still seems to be considered a more suitable topic for late-night talk show jokes than for journals of public health and public policy, even though a recent needs assessment survey in Washington, D.C., estimated that the median life expectancy of a transgendered person in the nation’s capitol is only thirty-seven years … Though many are far better off materially that the subjects of the Washington, D.C., study, transgendered and transsexual people of every social class and at every income level share many of the same vulnerabilities. Public prejudices make it difficult for visibly transgendered or transsexual people to gain an education, employment, housing, or health care, and acute gender dysphoria leaves people at high risk for drug abuse, depression, and suicide.