Monday 18 May 2015

Don't you believe it!

Social conditioning has a lot to answer for. It is one of those vague terms used to explain away all sorts of injustices in the battle for gender equality. In the past, I have felt ambivalent about it, believing that it was all too easy to make social conditioning the scapegoat for our difficulties in achieving equal pay, boardroom roles for women, or penetrating male-dominated professions. However, a startling survey by Privilege Insurance last week on female and male drivers not only challenges the old myth that men are better drivers, but also demonstrates just how pernicious social conditioning can be.

Infographic showing statistics from Privilege Insurance driving survey
Firstly, the survey finds that women are better drivers than men, in use of speed, observational skills on the road and response to other road users (among other things). Secondly, it suggests that there is a discrepancy between women's ability on the road and how they are perceived as drivers by society. The results from the survey actually show that both sexes tend to believe men are better drivers. 

Anecdotally this is borne out by my experiences of being in a car. On family outings, my husband is always the default driver because there is a general assumption that he is the better driver. Similarly, when I was learning to drive as a teenager, my family use to tease me for being a bit dopey, while they described my brother as a "natural driver". Possibly I am the exception to the rule, but how many times do we observe a car making an error on the roads and then assume it must be a woman behind the wheel?

Eyes wide shut

The Privilege survey shocked me because it made me realise just how conditioned we are to believe that women are inferior drivers, in the face of evidence to the contrary. And, that made me think about how many other areas of society there are where we are led to conclude (consciously or unconsciously) that men are better than women. 

There was an article in The Times last week about a group of American academics who are seeking to rehabilitate female British philosophers from the 17th and 18th centuries. The campaign, known as Project Vox, aims to restore the reputations of Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish, Damaris Masham and a French philosopher called Émilie du Châtelet. All four women influenced prominent male thinkers of their time but have been relegated to mere footnotes in historical accounts of the period.

Andrew Janiak, an associate professor in philosophy at Duke University, told The Times that the project had run into opposition from a few celebrated (and often male) thinkers. "Many philosophers still seem to regard the canon of great thinkers as more or less hermetically sealed," he said. "They resist the idea that women have been ignored, not on substantive intellectual or scientific or philosophical grounds, but rather because of bias."

Without a doubt, skill/talent/intelligence comes down to the individual, but certainly girls face more of a challenge asserting themselves. The odds are often stacked against them, in terms of social conditioning and their biological roles as mothers. Even my own son shocked me the other day when he assumed that boys were cleverer than girls. He's only eight and already he is picking up on some sinister gender bias. Clearly, as his mother, I am partly at fault and need to work harder to show him that neither gender should have the monopoly on intelligence or success.

It's official: women are better drivers!

The 'Privilege Driving Report' finds that out of a maximum score of 30, women achieved an average of 23.6, while men scored 19.8. The drivers were rated in 14 different categories, ranging from appropriate speed when approaching hazards to talking/texting on the phone and causing an obstruction on the road. The survey was carried out amongst a total of 1,633 drivers. 

A volunteer in the Privilege Insurance driving survey stands by her car
Andrea Garvey, a member of the public, takes the test
Credit: Privilege Insurance
When questioned about their beliefs, only 13% of men thought that women were better drivers. Less than a third of women - or 28% - believed they were better drivers than their partners.

"The research has shown that there is a really big discrepancy between how men think they drive and how they actually drive," said Charlotte Fielding, head of car insurance at Privilege. 

The in-car research was carried out amongst a sample of 50 drivers, whilst observational research was carried out at Hyde Park Corner in London using a sample of 200 drivers. In addition, the 'beliefs and actions' of 1,383 drivers were surveyed between the 5 and 7 May 2015.

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