Tuesday, 20 January 2015

B for Bias (and Book Bags)

As a female Sindhi teenager in Hong Kong in the ‘80s, growing up with bias was a given. There was an underlying assumption that as an Asian woman, regardless of how clever I was, I would eventually be a married mother one day. Oddly, this was never suggested at home; on the contrary, I was always brought up to be an independent thinker and self-reliant. Instead, the assumption came from “society” (society in my mind equating a picture of lots of aunties sitting in a living room at a lunch party, gossiping), not voiced directly but recognised as a quiet consensus. Other blatant biases were easier to identify: the taxi overshooting you in the queue to pick up a Caucasian or Chinese client or the less-than-friendly reception from the immigration officer at Hong Kong airport. It’s bizarre but blatant bias was easier to deal with: once you figured out how people were going to treat or perceive you, you could prepare yourself for the worst, have your response ready and sometimes be pleasantly surprised.

But now living as an adult in a politically-correct London in 2015, blatant bias is taboo; bias is more subtle and therefore more deceptive. I sometimes feel like I experience subtle bias when I talk about the choices I made; not returning to work and being a full-time mum. I am a happy in this role and yet I often feel that society (yes the same aunties, just older) is pointing a finger at me and saying I have an obligation to do it all.

No one is shouting this from the rooftops but I feel that there is no room in the 21st century for the original “Asian woman equals married mother” assumption. However, there is now an equally definitive premise that an “Asian educated woman equals woman that should do it all” assumption because biases are no longer holding us back. But I wonder if the new premise should have “if one wants to” at the end of it; isn’t less bias supposed to offer more choice? Otherwise we are just replacing one assumption with another.

My response to this less-blatant bias is this. I have a huge amount of respect and time for women that are mums and have a career too. But I know that it is hard to do both well and without help, corners do get cut. Acknowledging these successful role models publicly is easy; accepting my limitations (knowing that I can do one job well but two jobs badly) and dismissing the bias around me to conform has been harder to do. My point is that bias comes from not knowing or understanding something fully – just look around you, all that violence and anger in the world is driven by people’s ignorance, fear and bias. Accepting that we will always be subject to bias, subtle or obvious, is difficult but it is realistic. But what I have found out about myself is that it’s the way we react or give in to the biases around us that defines us.

P.S. Having been a mum for a while now, I miss book bags, with little heads peering into them, tiny fingers clutching on to their handles with the same sense of urgent importance that the Chancellor of the Exchequer holds his red Budget box. Talk about social conditioning!

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