Congratulations to the U.S. Treasury Department for its recent decision to put a woman on money. Harriet Tubman is set to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by 2020. Naturally, there is poetic justice in replacing a slave holder with a woman who fought so tirelessly for emancipation. Yet, there are two other reasons why the face of a woman on U.S. currency notes is so healthy for American culture and why this current decision does not go far enough.
First, symbols of gender equality matter. What people see every day as they live, work, shop, and play has a massive impact on their deep-seated attitudes and beliefs about gender.
Recently many of us have been speaking about "implicit bias," the subconscious ways in which we may, often inadvertently, penalize women for acting assertively while accepting men's engagement in the exact same behaviors. Our research has shown that women often suffer a backlash when they ask for resources, speak forcefully in a group meeting, claim credit for their achievements, and act in other ways that are not seen as suitably feminine.
Naturally, none of us wish to be biased nor do we think our own behaviors displays these biases. Thus, although organizations have spent millions of dollars on trainings to try to "de-bias" their workforce, these types of trainings, although well-meaning, have very little chance of achieving their goals. Decades of research has shown that simply being aware of a subconscious bias does little to correct it.
What does work? Changing what people see and experience as part of their everyday lives. These visuals change our attitudes and beliefs about what is "normal." One of the most striking shifts in the past decades, thanks in large part to Title IX, has been in women's sports. It has now become normal for women to compete in sports, winning both scholarships and endorsements. Yet, women still lag in business, politics, and pay (even in sports, as we have seen with the Women's World Cup soccer team). We need to see and celebrate more women's leadership and achievements on a broader spectrum.
You might ask, why currency? The symbol of a female figure on our paper currency is particularly noteworthy (pun intended) because money, itself, is a symbol. Our "paper" currency is simply a piece of pretty cloth, but endowed with the symbolism of the U.S. financial system, it becomes a powerful object capable of procuring goods and services. The purchasing power of cash itself thus proves how much symbols matter, and putting women on the front will go a long way to help normalize our value for gender equity. For girls, seeing women who have played a pivotal role in history on our currency is both inspirational and aspirational.
Second, a pernicious bias is the automatic association we now make between men and money. For example, if people are given a job description and asked to evaluate how much salary someone doing that job should make, people guess significantly more when told it is a man doing that job than when told it is a woman doing the job. Moreover, as jobs that once were predominantly held by male workers come to have more and more female workers, the average salary of that job drops. We subconsciously connect men, rather than women, to higher wages and generally to money and wealth. We need to change the everyday symbols and cues that lead to such subconscious associations.
We look forward to applauding future bills celebrating women heroes like the Suffragettes. Let us all remember what Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, "After more than 100 years, we cannot delay.... We must include women who have for too long been absent from our currency." Amen.
Melanne Verveer, former U.N. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues and Director of Georgetown's Institute for Women Peace and Security, contributed to this article.