The power of being the default

Studies show, that when you ask a child to draw a picture of a politician, or scientist, or doctor or genius, they will nearly always draw a man. These stereotypes stay with us until

adulthood when we are suddenly given the power to vote for politicians, to decide whether to believe scientists and to choose what doctor to see. The benefit of being the default is that you’re automatically deemed more trustworthy. This isn’t to say that you can’t do these things as a woman, but there is undeniably an extra obstacle to overcome.

I recently finished reading Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where I read the line – when people say women, they mean white women. This was only one of the profound insights that I got from this novel. Being Irish – ie having spent the majority of my life in a largely monocultural bubble – it often takes conscious thought for me to consider social divisions other than gender and class. Race seems to operate in the background.

Straight, white men are the default – there is absolutely no question about that. From words like ‘mankind’ to the use of male pronouns when gender isn’t specified, to the colloquial use of the word ‘guys’ even when addressing a mixed group, to the less than admirable gender balances in governments and boardrooms worldwide and beyond.

But, obviously, gender is often not the dominant social group. Aside from gender, being the default means that when people think of your group, they think of you. You’re not an outlier. You can go into a clothes shop and be guaranteed that they stock your size, you can go anywhere without calling ahead to make sure they can accommodate you, and when an acting job calls for a ‘female’ they don’t need to specify skin colour and you know they mean yours.

So, how do you make a new category the default? It literally just takes some new policy and a good bit of time. You can’t just tell someone ‘women can be leaders, too’ – you have to actually put conscious effort into making it the new normal.

Consider the example of shopping in the supermarket. In terms of environmentally conscious shopping, the US is incredibly behind, so let’s make this an EU example. Across Europe, precedent has been set for charging for plastic bags in supermarkets. Ireland brought this in as a new law back in 2002 – a plastic bag was 15c. I honestly can’t remember whether a fuss was made about this in a way that would rival the utter chaos the 5p charge in the UK brought upon the people across the pond. Either way, the Irish quickly got used to it. If you needed a bag, you paid. To provide alternative, supermarkets offered free paper bags and charged the more hefty fee of approximately 70c for a ‘bag for life’ that could be reused over years. Now, Irish supermarkets are frequented mostly by people who carry a ‘bag for life’ them wherever they go. Drawers full of them at home, boots of cars always in supply. The bottom line is, we changed the default. I cannot ever imagine buying a plastic bag.

The legislation to change the default is probably always tricky at first, but eventually people realise that this is how this were always meant to be and we’re better for it. The same logic can be applied to gender quotas.

Right now, being of slim build, being white, being straight or cis and – largely – being male, are assumptions for so many categories. Anything else has to be specified. For example, you’re called an astronaut or a female astronaut, a president or a black president, a model or a plus-size model. The reality is that the world is never going to be truly representative unless that changes.