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“.]

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