The stage is set for a scene

Consider the following scenario.

Kim is a single parent of two, a 7-year old boy and a 3-year old girl, and also the director of marketing for a small to medium-sized electronics firm. Today, Kim is scheduled to present key results from the quarterly sales report to the Board of Trustees but arrives for the meeting 15 minutes late due to having to drop the older boy at school, and the younger girl at daycare. In addition to disheveled hair, there is a noticeable stain down the left side of Kim's suit, the result of the young girl vomiting at the end of her car trip after a hurried breakfast.

Why do you think Kim is late for this meeting? Is Kim a good parent? A good employee?

More importantly, which sex have you assumed Kim to be as you answer these questions? Did you think that Kim was a man or a woman? In research I conducted, I simply asked these initial questions to encourage people to reveal their assumptions about the sex of Kim. Keep in mind that here in Australia, Kim is a gender neutral name, unlike in other parts of the world where it is decidely female.

Kim's sex was not identified in the above scenario. Go ahead and check. No personal pronouns, no identification of gender. However, you probably filled in this blank automatically based on assumptions you made about how the world works. Most of the Australians presented with this scenario (95%) inferred that Kim is a woman. Both men and women make this assumption.

Why is Kim presumed to be a woman?

Given that Kim is identified as a director of marketing, it is more likely based on this information alone that Kim is a man. Men are significantly more likely to be in management than women. For example, within the European Union, women comprise just over 10% of the top executives in the top 50 publicly quoted companies, and in the US, less than 16% of corporate officers and less than 15% of members of boards of directors within Fortune 500 companies.

This consistent difference in representation of sexes in senior business and leadership roles is the famous glass ceiling. I will return to this later. For now, Kim would be more likely a man based on Kim's senior business role.

So why is it assumed Kim is a woman? Perhaps it is the mention of Kim being a 'single parent.' Somehow this seems to apply more to mothers than fathers. But why? If a couple with children divorce, don't both of them become 'single parents'? So strictly, this adds no information to whether Kim is man or woman.

However, the scenario mentions the dropping of children at school and daycare. Women generally take on the majority of the burden of child-bearing in the home, and mothers become primary custodians for children in 85% of divorces.

So if we make the broad assumption that men are as likely to over-represent women at the executive level (say 85:15) as single mothers are to over-represent single fathers in the duty of dropping children at a child-care facility (say 85:15), then it is impossible to determine Kim's sex from these data. That is, our best guess is exactly that, a guess. However, if people were just guessing, I would expect a result of approximately 50% for each sex.

But they are not guessing. People assume Kim is female. Why is this?

Intuitively perhaps, the story seems to describe a woman more than a man. It falls in line with stories previous told. It is the lot of women, and especially single mothers, to be engaged in a struggle to be a good parent to the children and pursuing a career at the same time.

The strength of fit is perhaps helped by the storyline that both of the struggles experienced by Kim as a woman maybe be blamed on men. In the first instance, he is not pulling his weight in home duties, and in the second, he discriminates against the women at work.

However, imagine Kim is a man. Is he perceived to be struggling? If he is helping in child-rearing as well as working his way up the corporate ladder, it seems that Kim as a man is a hero. If Kim is a woman, she is at best struggling, and at worst messing up.

There is a double-standard here, one that operates against women.

Let's examine another scenario.

Terry is a single parent of a 4-year old boy called James. James spends some of his time with Terry and the other half of his time with his other parent. Today, three police-officers and two child-safety officers have just arrived unannounced at Terry's home. The child-safety officers indicate that specific allegations have been made that Terry has been abusing James. They insist on entering the house to interview first Terry, and then James. While the accusations have been made anonymously, it is perhaps significant to note that the separation of James' parents was acrimonious.
Why is Terry being confronted by these allegations? Is Terry a good parent? What do you think this time?

Well, it probably depends on which sex you imagine Terry to be. Most people (82%) tended to see Terry as a man. Terry is also a gender neutral name in Australia, so this result is not due to the choice of names. Why assume Terry is a man?

You might argue that this just makes sense. Men are aggressive. Accordingly, husbands harass, abuse, and beat their wives, and fathers are more likely to be child-abusers. Women as mothers on the other hand are natural caretakers. A woman would never harm a child. Women simply know and understand the needs of children.

As it happens, these gender stereotypes are not entirely accurate!

Across all categories of child abuse, women make up a greater proportion of child-abusers than men: 54% female vs. 46% male. More significantly, mothers are much more likely to abuse children than fathers; of all child abusers 45% are mothers; and 24% are fathers

Disturbingly, the counter-stereotype extends to child fatalities. Mothers are more likely to kill their children than fathers. She is the perpetrator, either alone or in company with an accomplice who is not the father in over one third (34.6%) of all documented child-fatalities. The father is the perpetrator – alone or with another other than the mother – at half the rate of the mother (17.2% of all documented child-fatalities).

These data certainly lead us to question the stereotype that women are the 'naturally' superior caregivers to men.

On the other hand, it is true that men are more likely to be sexual abusers than women, but sexual abuse is relatively rare as a form of abuse. Sexual abusers represent only 7.2% of all child abuse perpetrators and only 2.4% of parental abusers. In short, the probability of a mother abusing a child is 20-50 times more likely than the father sexually abusing a child

So many good men are categorized as 'villain' based on the gender profile of a thankfully rare offender and despite considerable evidence to suggest that women abuse children overall at a higher rate than men.

Intriguingly, I found that some of the few who identified Terry as a women still saw the man as the villain. She was described as the victim of an angry ex-husband making false claims against her. He's a villain either way.

Here is another double-standard. This one however, operates against men.


  1. Oddly enough, in both scenarios I assumed Kim and Terry to be males. But then I was conditioned by experience.But, I agree, the assumption could easily be made the other way simply on mental conditioning.

  2. makes perfect sense to me.

  3. Many (american?) people think of Kim a female name, short for Kimberly. Terry is usually a male name.

  4. I agree, Kim is most commonly used as a women's name in America. Perhaps Alex or Joe would be better.

  5. Yes, a good thing to do while trolling for sexism is to actually use an ambiguous name. America is not the only country, I know, but even if using Kim as a surname for a Korean person, you rarely address them as such.

    Point being, I think you shot yourself in the foot by trying to prove yourself right, and doing so poorly because you didn't give your audience enough room to doubt. It's not sexism if they have never met a man named "Kim". I read the first word, decided it was a story about a female, and kept on trucking. I was waiting for the twist when I discovered a ham-handed attempt at shaming me into examining gender equality.

    Casey, Jordan, Riley...there are plenty of names you could have substituted, and caused people to not immediately dismiss your idea. The way it sits, either:
    1. You are deliberately trying to mislead your audience, or...
    2. You do not understand your audience in the least.

    Whichever the case may be, it makes for a poor analysis of group psychology.

  6. We are Australian, and you are quite right in noting that "America is not the only country". In Australia, a "Kim" is equally likely to be a man or a woman. Same with "Terry", which is why we chose those two names. The data we report are based on Australian reactions to the two scenarios, so the bias exists even when the names are gender neutral.

  7. I have editted the post to make this clear to non-Australian viewers.

  8. i like the little water droplets in the background.

  9. The person who's always rightDecember 7, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    Women are inferior to men. Feminism is just the weaker sex being backed into a corner and then crying for help.

  10. The person who's always right, you're wrong, and stupid too.

    I assumed Terry to be male in the second scenario mostly because in an acrimonius divorce it's more likely that the female half would be vindictive enough to make a vile allegation like that aginst her ex - especially if she's lost her kids over it. Also I would expect the police to take a more softly-softly approach with a mother and be more agressive with a man.