It happened to me twice in one week. And it’s 2016! First, a male companion and I went in to pick up two bikes we had taken in for a tune-up. Both were my bikes and I was the “customer” – and the one paying. The mechanic looked at me when I told him that we were picking the bikes up and gave him my name. But almost immediately he shifted his attention to my male friend who was stepping up to the desk. He never looked at me again, assuming (I suppose) that Charlie was in charge.
Just days later, I had scheduled an annual visit from the chimneysweep for the fireplaces at my mountain cabin. Again, Charlie was present. I have been a customer of this company for over a decade – and I even discussed that with the main serviceman who arrived. As he completed his assessment, he spoke only to Charlie, explaining what he had done and what needs to be checked how often. Charlie was the guest of the homeowner and customer – but the serviceman spoke with him!
Now, I wasn’t offended; I didn’t take this personally. I just observed and considered why this happened. Was I invisible? Did I look unable to handle these conversations? This is the same phenomenon women often experience with car salesmen and automobile mechanics. There is an assumption that women lack interest or knowledge in such things. So, if a man is present, the conversation is in his direction. More important, research shows, women are over-charged for car repairs more often than men because of these stereotypes about who knows what.
At its roots, this is a form of unconscious gender bias. I call it “presumed vs. earned credibility.” It is a close cousin to the form of unconscious gender bias that I call “unconscious images.” We all have images of how things look – including power, success, credibility, and leadership. Because for many decades most leaders have been white male, we tend to think white males “fit the picture” for leadership positions. They are most likely to come to mind for a challenging project or promotion.
For the same reason, we are more likely to assume a white male (particularly a tall one) is successful, competent or “in charge” than a woman or black male. We are more likely to listen to him! This presumption is behind “mansplaining” – defined by Erin Reeves as “a man interrupting a woman to explain to her something that she actually knows more about than he does.” It’s what is going on in meetings when a woman’s idea gets no response – but a man gets credit for the idea when he repeats it. His voice has “presumed credibility.” She has to prove her competence rather than benefit from a presumption of credibility.
That’s what was going on with the bike mechanic and chimneysweep. I wasn’t angry. I am pretty attuned to issues of unconscious bias. Not because I have thin skin, but because it is my business. And I had two opportunities to experience it.