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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Georgiou

Which Witch? the Impact of biases for women and girls

Happy Halloween! The spooky holiday that is steeped in paranormal phenomena, wonder, mystery, history, myths, and legends of ancestry heroisms. It has evolved culture, spiritual enlightenment, respect for nature, harvest, and of course dentist bills with an ever-growing love of sweets! What an occasion we have created that couldn’t be further away from the origins of Celtic Samhain celebrations to honour the end of the summer, the darker winter nights and of course crossing boundaries of the veils between the living and the dead.

Instead, we have orchestrated a holiday to generalise, magnify and create further exploitive opportunities to create costumes that amplify, undermine, sexualise, and promote further misogyny and patriarchal norms. We have allowed Halloween activities to disrespect cultures, insight racial and disability discrimination and instigate higher levels of triggers, stress, and risks to strangers with jump scare pranks, trick or treaters and often can cause parental pressure to conjure up exciting, Halloween costumes or parties for their little monsters. I know I sound like the equivalent of a Halloween scrooge; I assure you I am not, but I do reflect on the impact that modern day Halloween celebrations has incorporated bias from a patriarchal society trenched within the history and oppression of women and girls.

We are aware, although are still uncovering much more information, of the horrific English and European history, of punishing and torturing many women and girls on accusations of witchcraft. 1000’s of lives was lost in this gendercide movement and multiple families, reputations and societies destroyed. What was the cause? Power, control, misconceptions, and bias.

As modern-day societies in the western world, we assume we have removed ourselves from collective judgement and witch-hunt mentality. But have we really?

We demonstrate a similar aspect of thought towards women today, whether it be through victim blaming in domestic abuse, sexual assault and pathologising of women medically in understanding trauma and mental health or expected gender roles. Many of the biases we hold are still prevalent today in how they serve us to continue to oppress and disadvantage women and girls.

Some of the main biases that are often experienced often restrict and create barriers for women, especially in the workplace and leadership roles, but as this reflection continues, I am hoping that the pattern will become clear and why it is important to be very aware of the wider impact.

Approximately 73% of women experience bias at work—yet less than a third of employees are able to recognize bias when they see it. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it harder for women to get hired and promoted and negatively impacts their day-to-day work experiences.

Likeability bias is rooted in age-old expectations. We expect men to be assertive, so when they lead, it feels natural. We expect women to be kind and communal, so when they assert themselves, we like them less. Performance bias is also based on deep-rooted and incorrect assumptions about women’s and men’s abilities. Tending to underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s.

Attribution bias is closely linked to performance bias. In society, women are often seen as less competent than men, and tend to be given less credit for accomplishments, with a healthy dose of blame for mistakes made.

Affinity bias is what it sounds like: we gravitate toward people like us in appearance, beliefs, and background. We may avoid or even dislike people who are different from us. So, when women are employed or stepping into male dominated areas, or societally perceived male expertise fields, there are already many invisible hurdles for women to jump over.

Then of course we have Maternal bias which implies that motherhood triggers false assumptions that women are less committed to their careers—and even less competent. When actually the respect and recognition should be present of the phenomenal amount of multi-tasking and transferable skills that any caring role takes.

Intersectionality Bias isn’t limited to gender. Women can also experience biases due to their race, sexual orientation, a disability, or other aspects of their identity. It is this bias that causes many microaggressions. These are comments and actions that demean or dismiss someone based on their gender, race, or other aspects of their identity.

Black and multi ethnic women are nearly 2.5x more likely than white women to hear someone at work express surprise about their language skills or other abilities. Lesbian and bisexual women and women with disabilities are far more likely than other women to hear debasing remarks about themselves.

The importance of general interactions at work matter, so when we have facts like the following you can see why it sometimes feels like an uphill battle. For example, men interrupt women almost three times more often than other men. Research has shown that in a study of performance reviews, 66% of women received negative feedback on their personal style such as “You can sometimes be abrasive” compared to 1% of men. 59% of black women have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader at their company.

However, this example is always one of my favourites, as a woman who has often enjoyed learning about- and drinking them, beer and ales.

Here is a quick history lesson of how microaggressions and bias can cause long-term change to women and their work and how this can escalate to oppression, abuse and torture of women in society hundreds of years later.

Up until the 1500s, brewing was primarily women’s work—that is, until a smear campaign accused women brewers of being witches. Much of the representation we associate with witches today, from the pointy hat to the broom, probably emerged from their connection to female brewers.

If we travelled back in time to the Middle Ages and went to a market, you’d probably see an oddly familiar sight: women wearing tall, pointy hats. In many instances, they’d be standing in front of big cauldrons. But these women were no witches, they were brewers. They wore the tall, pointy hats so that their customers could see them in the crowded marketplace. They transported their brew in cauldrons. Those who sold their beer out of stores often kept cats, not as demon familiars, but to keep mice away from the grain.

Just as women were establishing their foothold in the beer markets of England, Ireland and the rest of Europe, the Reformation began. The fundamentalist religious movement, created by men, which originated in the early 16th century, preached stricter gender norms, and condemned witchcraft.

Male brewers saw an opportunity to reduce their competition in the beer trade... men began spurting rumours and accusing female brewers of witchcraft and using their cauldrons to brew up magic potions instead of booze. Unfortunately, the rumours took hold. Over time, it became more dangerous for women to practice brewing and sell beer because they could be accused of being a witch! Obviously at the time, being accused of witchcraft wasn’t just a social faux pas that could be chalked down to an embarrassing experience of public awkwardness from drinking too much of their favourite batch ( I may be cringingly reminiscing here) but resulted in being ostracized in their communities, imprisoned, prosecuted and even killed-often along with further innocent family and friends.

We can assume that some men didn’t really believe that the women brewers were witches. However, many did believe that women shouldn’t be spending their time making beer. The process took time and dedication: hours to prepare the ale, sweep the floors clean and lift heavy bundles of rye and grain. If women couldn’t brew ale, they would have significantly more time to be good wives, be at home to raise their children and fall in line with gendered expectations of what women were ‘supposed to do’. In the 1500s some towns in England, actually made it illegal for most women to sell beer, worried that young alewives would grow up into old spinsters.

Currently, men still dominate the beer industry with the top 10 beer companies in the world, led by male CEOs and have mostly male board members. Advertising of said major beer companies have also tended to portray beer as a drink for…say it with me now… men.

So, moving on from the magic alchemy that is beer brewing, there is positive movement in the right direction for women entering professionals’ careers in previously seen areas of male based roles. Government data shows that in 2020, there were still over one million women in core-STEM occupations. There are now over 53,000 women in engineering professional roles – almost double the number from 13 years ago, but the proportion of technology roles filled by women has remained consistent, but has only increased slightly since 2010. Tracking and challenging these biases with active campaigns like the Wise campaign ( which captures the latest government workforce data, highlights the critical need for keeping gender on the agenda for data collection.

But along with the importance of collecting data we can support 51% of our world population by asking ourselves what our personal biases are, what does this mean to us as individuals and how does it impact others around us?

There is no magic potion we can brew or spell we can cast to change the negative impact biases have for women and girls. But we can lead as women and empower each other by raising our voices, educating ourselves, society, and future generations so we can all get a step closer to living in a world where equality and equity is a reality for all women around the globe.

We can break down biases by giving women safe platforms to speak and maintaining a gender equal mindset. Explore and challenge gender stereotypes, discrimination, and bias. Address ongoing harassment and prejudice that hold so many women back from entering or excelling in industries.

We can do this by positively influencing others patriarchal or misogynistic beliefs.

Let’s forge positive visibility of women in all kinds of roles, establishing more organisation for women in each industry, and encourage celebrating women’s achievements. Many influential women have paved the ways for new generations to escape the devastating fate of historic 'withes', by being passionate, determined, strong, empathetic, vocal, angry, assertive, frustrated, and embraced their uniqueness and power. Let’s stop history repeating itself and hex all those demons who are still thinking with a witch hunt mentality.

In true Halloween fashion for my family, although rather low key for some, as I am reserving my much needed energy to contact the dead later, I'm looking forward to roasting and eating some pumpkin seeds, salvaged from the carnage of pumpkin carving, drinking a beer whilst watching scary movies and listening to some great songs on my feminist ambivert playlist (found on the website sounds page), one of them being W.I.T.C.H by the artist, Devon Cole-Woman In Total Control of Herself-although maybe not completely around the children's sweets, but that's definitely a definition of a witch I am proud to be! Cheers and Happy Halloween!

Three women dressed in period garb as alewives. The tall hats became a part of witch iconography. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

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