Objectivity and discrimination: a pernicious bias

[A gender neutral translation of the original post Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women. It also extends the argument to other forms of discrimination. Why? – see the backstory at the end of the post.]

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. For many people, the need for objectivity might even take precedence over moral and political convictions. It seems that, for some scientists, peoples’s direct experiences of discrimination and the concerns they evoke can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some people who haven’t directly experienced discrimination seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest
  • it implies (wrongly) that those who have do not experience discrimination are uninvolved whereas they frequently benefit from membership of privileged groups that helped define current cultural practices, and through their action or inaction are empowered to change or sustain them.

If you are truly committed to objectivity, and have not experienced discrimination yourself, you must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the other’s who are wrong” doesn’t count. Has your lack of experience distorted your thinking on the topic? Do you need more evidence about the experience of others? Are you evaluating the evidence from those who have experienced discrimination inaccurately? Are you inclined to inaction which could serve to sustain a discriminatory culture or practice that benefits you?

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate. It is not reasonable for people to be sceptical about the existence or extent of discrimination just because they have not experienced it themselves. This is especially true for people whose membership of privileged groups means that their experience and understanding of the negative effects of discrimination is systematically limited.

So how should people who truly believe in objectivity and equality begin to address these biases when their own lack of experience is likely to bias their thinking? The first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by seeking out and listening to those who are most affected, and taking their experiences seriously.

Backstory

I was quite pleased with the original post, but after I published it, I was somewhat taken to task on twitter by Rachael Jack, and later offline by my daughter Isobel. The wording, they felt, could be taken to imply that one person’s view is more valid than another’s simply by virtue of their gender. Clearly there would be many grave problems with that position (which was not what I meant) the most striking of which was that (as a man) I would be in no position to rebut their arguments!

The above post, just translates the original into the terms I would have used had I been more precise, and I think it’s logic is sound and clearer, although I think it will be less persuasive to my target audience – the people with least experience of discrimination who benefit most from the status quo. Sadly many of these people do not seem to have reflected very deeply on their own biases and are still prone to speak against change from a position of ignorance.

A nice byproduct of the translation is that it extends to other forms of discrimination.

A negative feature, which I found unavoidable was the use of the term ‘privilege’ to refer to groups who have been shielded from discrimination e.g., white, male, heterosexual people. In terms of my intended audience in the original post, this is likely to be seen as jargon describing a phenomenon that they have not yet fully acknowledged.

 

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Men: when to stand up, when to pipe down

Based on what I have learned so far by listening to women.

If you work in science or technology and spend any time listening to the honest views of women around you, you will find that many report experiences of sexism and an environment that is hostile to them. Listen to them.

Men sometimes undervalue women’s views, ideas and experiences, talk over them and shut them out of discussion, even in discussions about sex, gender and discrimination where they clearly have vital, distinct experiences and knowledge. Don’t drown out their voices. 

When you see that other men are not listening to women’s experiences, are drowning out their contributions, dismissing their concerns or derailing discussions they have initiated, what should you do? You will need tact and judgement to determine whether your support is truly helpful – for example, if you get drawn into a predominantly male argument it is surprisingly be easy to become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Women’s ideas are sometimes dismissed, ignored or doubted until expressed by a man. If you want to amplify, echo or support a woman’s view, it can be helpful to make it explicit. “I would like to amplify what Dr X has said”, “I agree with Dr X”. This avoids any impression that you are taking credit for her idea, and it helps remind other men to listen to women.*

When you see overt sexism or misogyny, yes, you should speak up. Confront it.

This is going to take some judgement, sometimes we need to stand up, often we need to pipe down. In both cases it will feel uncomfortable, in my view, that male discomfort is the feeling you get when a sexist culture is changing for the better.

Note: I have focused on women and sexism, but if you look around you will find other groups are under-represented and marginalized in your workplace. Try the same techniques: listen to the people affected, then try to advocate for change that will improve matters.

*In this spirit I should acknowledge the people whose ideas I have incorporated in the above advice who most recently and directly include @zerdeve (especially this thread), @o_guest (twitter) and @noodlemaz (blog and twitter) although many others have expressed similar views. Misunderstandings or mistakes are my own. The tip about explicitly acknowledging women whose views you agree with and want to amplify was arrived at by trial and (especially) error – one error pointed out gracefully (but forcefully) by Prof Ursula Martin was helpful. Of course, I like other-well intentioned men, will make mistakes in the way we respond to women’s concerns about sexism.

Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. But objectivity is hard to achieve when non-experts consider deficiencies in our own practices and culture. Some seem to feel that women’s experiences and concerns about the extent of sexism in science can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some men seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective and better informed view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • it implies (wrongly) that men are uninvolved, whereas men’s preferences are clearly highly relevant to the cultures and practices they have established and sustain
  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest

If we are truly committed to objectivity we must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases with regard to sexism. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the women who are wrong” doesn’t count.

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “Fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate.

It is not reasonable or objective for men to be sceptical about the existence or extent of sexism just because they don’t experience it: our experience is necessarily biased. Unjustified doubts about sexism delay remedial action and can be part of the problem. If you have any doubts then the first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by listening to women.

[If you disagree with this post, you might prefer the gender-neutral translation (which also extends to other forms of discrimination).

You may also be interested on my post: “Men: when to stand up, and when to pipe down“.]