Last week, Amanda McCall proposed "10 delicious solutions to Ben & Jerry's women problem": a suite of new flavors calling attention to Ben & Jerry's gross underrepresentation of women in their flavor names.
By McCall's count, only two of Ben & Jerry's more than 20 person-named flavors over the past three decades have featured women: "Liz Lemon's Greek Frozen Yogurt" and "Hannah Teter's Maple Blondie."
Of course, ice cream flavor names aren't exactly political mandates or awards for lifetime achievement. As McCall acknowledges, flavor-name parity won't close the gender pay gap or elect more women to office. But calling attention to gender disparities of this kind is valuable precisely because such disparities so easily go unnoticed. A string of female flavors would seem anomalous (Ruth Bader Ginger, Coco-nut Chanel, Angelina Jolie Rancher, Jane Austen Cream Pie...), yet in many domains, it takes a stunt like McCall's for most of us to notice a trend of female absence.
As another example of women's unexpectedly stark underrepresentation, consider the findings from a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released earlier this year. Among the top grossing 100 films of 2014, women comprised only 29 percent of the major characters and 30 percent of the speaking characters. Focusing on the casting for leaders of various kinds, the asymmetry was even more severe: Women comprised only 19 percent of scientific or intellectual leaders, 18 percent of political leaders, 11 percent of business leaders and 4 percent of criminal leaders.
What's notable about these patterns of underrepresentation isn't just that they exist, but that they don't immediately and obviously strike us — the consumers — as unrealistic and undesirable. Most of us don't walk out of Ben & Jerry's disturbed by the disparity in flavor names, or leave mainstream movies wondering why so few women were capable of speech. We need writers like McCall and organizations like the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film to run the numbers precisely because some forms of under- (and over-) representation stay under the radar — they strike is as "normal" when they really should raise alarms.
How can this be?
The short answer is that people's perceptions of gender parity are informed in subtle ways by their beliefs about how men and women do, and should, behave, and by their beliefs about how men and women are, and should be, treated.
A case in point: Take people's perceptions of how much women speak relative to men. There's a widespread belief that women speak more than men — a belief that's often backed by authoritative-sounding numbers, such as Louann Brizendine's 2006 claim that "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000." The trouble is, this isn't supported by data. In fact, there's good reason to believe that women speak no more than men. Instead, people may believe that women speak more than their share, and consequently overestimate their relative contributions.
In fact, we know from independent research that a contribution from a woman can be perceived as excessive, while a comparable contribution from a man might be perceived as just right. For example, a set of studies I wrote about in 2013 found that both men and women judged hypothetical female CEOs more harshly for voicing opinions often than for tending to withhold their views, with the opposite pattern for male CEOs: They were judged more harshly for holding back than for voicing their opinions often. The expectations that generate these diverging judgments can be subtle and implicit — they're no indication of explicitly sexist views, and they're likely to operate without people's conscious awareness.
So, there seem to be two forces at work in people's perceptions of women's relative share of speaking: the reality people actually encounter (which is roughly comparable amounts of speaking) and people's expectations about how much women should speak relative to men. If people focus on episodes that violate their expectations that women should be reticent (or that men should hold forth), their perceptions of gender parity will be systematically skewed.
When it comes to ice cream names or movie roles, the story is much the same: People aren't just doing the math. They're more likely keeping track of deviations from their expectations as they choose their flavors and watch their films. If they aren't surprised to see men honored or lampooned by Ben & Jerry's (Cherry Garcia! The Tonight Dough!), or to encounter men in film with the power of speech or the power to lead, they're unlikely to make much of an overabundance of males. As a result, many people won't notice the relative absence of women.
To test this pet theory, I ran a little poll: I asked 40 people on Amazon Mechanical Turk to estimate — without independent sources — three numbers related to gender parity: the percentage of Ben & Jerry's person-themed ice cream flavors named after women in the last 30 years (they guessed 29 percent; the reality is less than 10 percent); the percentage of speaking roles in the top grossing 100 films of 2014 that were occupied by women (they guessed 46 percent; the reality was 30 percent); and the percentage of major character roles in the top 100 films of 2014 that were occupied by women (they guessed 38 percent; the reality was 29 percent).
In each case, my respondents provided estimates below 50 percent (significantly so for flavor names and major character roles), suggesting that they were at least somewhat sensitive to the reality. But they, nonetheless, overestimated women's actual representation by a statistically significant amount in each case, suggesting that their perceptions were also a function of something more. If I'm right, it could be that encountering men in these roles feels normal, non-deviant, or natural in some way — not an experience worth logging in our mental tally. And that this feeling is different when we encounter women. If so, that ought to change, and feminist ice cream flavors are among the more palatable ways to get started.
And that's why we need Ruth Bader Ginger ice cream.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.