Fatbergs and gamma bias

This post was prompted by a perfectly unobjectionable story from the Guardian. Click on the image below if you want to see the article.

Sewers have arguably been the greatest contribution to our public health and the people who build and maintain them (mostly men) are largely invisible. Ask yourself this question- who saved the most lives at the hospitals in the Crimea, the men who dug out the dead animals and excrement blocking the hospital sewers (ordered by Lord Cardigan), or the Ladies with lamps? It is of course a fatuous question because both groups made massive contributions to the wellbeing of wounded soldiers. However, we remember and commemorate one group but not the other.

There have been numerous stories of how women are bearing the brunt of the COVID pandemic and in the domestic setting, this may well be true. But we hear little of the contribution men are making, managing and maintaining our critical infrastructure- a contribution that is just as important as those being made by women.

Because more of us are spending more time at home and more of us are cooking at home there is added pressure on the sewage system. More oil and fat goes down the sink and more wet wipes, cotton wool buds, and dental floss gets flushed down the toilet. The result of this is fatbergs that left unchecked can block the sewers and without prompt action would result in sewage welling up into our homes. The implications for our health should be obvious.

So in the story above who did the difficult and dangerous work of clearing out the fatberg in the sewer? The article just says workers that almost certainly means it was men. If was mostly women that would be brought out and indeed if any women at all were involved they would be foregrounded and their gender would be celebrated. When it is men they are just workers. Their gender and their identity become irrelevant.

Gamma bias is a type of cognitive-bias matrix that operates around four possible judgements about gender: doing good (celebration), doing harm (perpetration), receiving good (privilege) and receiving harm (victimhood). This means, for example, good acts committed by men will be gender neutralised by referring to firefighters or sewage workers or highlighting a smaller number of women who may have been involved. Conversely, in the case of good acts committed by women their gender will be to the forefront. Similarly in the domains of privilege and victimhood; masculinity is highlighted in the domains of receiving privilege and but hidden in the domains of victimhood.

Does gamma bias in the media work against men? It looks to me as though it does although the one article highlighted in this post is not proof. However, this is a subject that amenable to objective testing and that is something we should do.

For more information about gamma bias apart from the obvious ‘google it’ I recommend the two articles listed below. There are also two useful and scholarly YouTube videos one by Martin Seager and John Barry from a talk at University College London that you can find here and another by Martin Seager alone that you can find here.

1. Seager M, Barry JA. Cognitive Distortion in Thinking About Gender Issues: Gamma Bias and the Gender Distortion Matrix. In: Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager M, Sullivan L, editors. The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 29]. p. 87–104. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1_5

2. Seager M. Delta bias in how we celebrate gender-typical traits and behaviours. Psychreg Journal of Psychology. 2020 Dec 1 [cited 2020 Dec 31]; Available from: https://zenodo.org/record/4299034

By femgoggles

I was abandoned by my parents in the black mountains and raised by timberwolves. On my return to the 'civilised world' with questionable table manners, I became a detached observer of human behaviour in general and gender relations in particular. This blog is the product of those observations.


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