The world’s Johns still take it allThe choices we make as readers are often biased; influenced by our socialisation in gender roles.
Each turn of the year invariably brings all sorts of summaries. Among the reports on the previous year’s developments and setbacks, what particularly caught my attention was that men named John have written as many of 2020’s top business books as all women combined. As Susanne Althoff picked up in her piece for Fortune, of the 200 bestselling business books in 2020, only 17 were written by female authors, which is equal to the number of writers named John or Jon from the same ranking. Moreover, as the author points out, this particular case isn’t unique nor isolated. Men named John outnumber women also in politics, and in business as CEOs of big corporations—the list goes on.
Yes, John is a common name in the West. But it is not common enough to justify this phenomenon. As per the name census, a little over 3 percent of the male population in America are Johns. Women, on the other hand, constitute over 50 percent of this country’s total population. Furthermore, it’s rather unlikely that this particular name carries a certain set of superpowers that make Johns excel in life. Intuition tells us there must be something else behind it—a systemic, institutionalised inequality.
The market decides
The choices we make as readers are not genuine, they are often biased, influenced by our socialisation in gender roles. And in certain fields, especially those considered 'manly', like business or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), we would rather read what a man has to say than a woman. By no means is this to advocate for a quota system or other form of affirmative action to help female authors advance. It’s the market that decides who gets to be published. But when the system is rigged, as the customers’ choices are preconditioned by gender roles, it’s not a true meritocracy that reigns but rather a subsidised one. And we know what the odds are for a competitor to even enter a subsidised market, let alone succeeding there.
What we project matters. Both men and women internalise the image of men as being more capable than their female counterparts, which often holds women back. They self-censor themselves to make room for whom they perceive as a more deserving player, rightfully or not. Meanwhile, studies conducted across cultures showed that men are not as capable as they think they are, while women are more capable than they think they are.
Writer Rebecca Solnit starts her book Men Explaining Things to Me with an anecdote that sets the tone for the rest of the book. At a dinner party, a man making small talk asked her what kind of books she had written; and with a visibly condescending attitude, interrupted her answer and started to prize 'a very important book' that came out that year. He went on and on, displaying with content his authority in the matter described in that book so persistently that it took Solnit’s friend a few tries to get through, saying, ‘She wrote this book’ and pointing at Solnit. When the message finally reached the man, he was flabbergasted. She did not fit his idea of an author of a good book.
In my years of investigating gender inequality, I came to realise that it is rarely an outcome of a malicious, premeditated strategy of men, but of the stereotypes embedded in our mindset, so deeply that women also perpetuate them. Our daily behaviours, choices and comments are impregnated with subconscious patriarchal values, simply because they have been around for so long that both, men and women, embraced them. And it has only been recently that we started to pay attention, be vigilant to all the microaggressions, many of them reflected in the language we use, that we have to unlearn.
A Danish family therapist and author, Jesper Juul, narrated an experiment that had been conducted on a group of thousands of mothers. Twenty-five babies were placed in a room next to the one where the mothers were gathered. The women who were told that the babies were boys would rush in to comfort them whenever they heard them cry. When told that the babies were girls, their reaction was significantly slower. The only way Juul could explain this is that the mothers wanted to convey to their daughters that life isn’t easy or fair for women, and that they should start getting used to it from very early on.
Fran Lebowitz, a writer and public speaker, claims that she would have never anticipated the #MeToo movement to happen, which says a lot coming from such an astute observer of reality. To her, the status of woman in society seemed to be the same 'since Eve till a while ago'; the patriarchy in all its forms was so omnipresent that it cost even to imagine a change.
Another American writer, journalist and an icon of the second wave of American feminism, Gloria Steinem, recalls how in the 1970s she attempted to publish texts on women's rights, but she met with resistance from editors and publishers (who were mostly men). They argued that if she writes an article about discrimination against women, she should then write another one about their rights not being violated at all, in order to remain faithful to the sacred principle of journalistic objectivity. To follow that logic would be to support the fabrication of a parallel narrative regarding climate change, only to honour the deniers’ detachment from facts. There are topics and areas to which there is no other side.
While waiting for economics to become gender-blind, we could read female writers, for example, Esther Duflo, an economist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. But really, waiting for others to come around is not the way to go about it. This change won’t happen without everyone’s involvement. Because even the best-intentioned of us aren’t entirely free from bias. Furthermore, and going back to the bestselling business books, most of the female authors were white, which uncovers yet another layer of discrimination—under-representation of women of colour. There is simply too much to be fixed for anyone to sit this one out.