Bias or Just Natural?

Solvay Conference 1927Whenever issues of bias or stereotype have been raised on this blog someone, usually a different person each time, has been quick to jump in with the claim that we shouldn’t be aiming for equality in that way. Often others rapidly agree. People have different abilities and desires. And some of these may be tied to gender. (I suspect that some want to say they may be tied to race as well – but don’t dare.)

Of course desires and goals play a role – but how big a role?

Several different people, including Scot, sent me a link to a New York Times article last Thursday – Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science by Eileen Pollack. For some strange reason they all thought I’d be interested … and I was.

Pollack starts with an illustration from a recent study:

Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.

The study Pollack cites was published in PNAS September 2012: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. This one is available open access if you wish to read it.

The resume was randomly assigned a male or female name and this alone changed the likelihood of getting the job and the salary offered.

Stereotype bias is alive and well in our world (and, by the way, in our church – where it is often less subtle, more overt).

In the New York Times article Pollack goes on to reflect on her experiences as an undergraduate at Yale majoring in physics, graduating with honors, and leaving physics for other pursuits. She is now a professor in the English Department at Michigan, in creative writing. She also recounts interviews with women currently studying in the sciences or on the faculty at Yale. It is worth a read.

Along the same line, I’ve been reading a book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele, a Professor of Psychology, formerly Provost at Columbia University and now Dean for the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Stereotypes don’t only hurt women and minorities – and it isn’t only an issue in math and science. Stereotypes and the threat they pose also have a significant impact on white males, or any other group.

Golfer from wikipediaOne of the studies Steele discusses in the opening chapters of his book considered stereotype threat experienced by men in a game of indoor golf. When white men were told the game was designed to test their natural athletic ability they performed poorly compared with white men who were simply playing the game without the threat introduced by a test of ability. Black men, on the other hand, performed the same whether they were told it was a test of natural athletic ability or not. They were not threatened by this test of ability.

And then the tables were turned. When the men were told it was a test of “sports strategic intelligence” the white men performed the same as those who were simply playing the game, but the black men performed significantly worse. They felt the pressure of the stereotype that blacks are less intelligent. In this situation the white men were not threatened.

Both groups felt the threat of stereotypes, but the triggers were different.

I don’t think we should aim for an artificial 50/50 in any profession or role. But I do think we should aim for an environment where all are treated fairly, and feel they can perform (or play) without threat of stereotype. Frankly it wears people down, and eventually becomes more burden than challenge or fun.

And lest you think the church is free of this bias, think again. I rather suspect that it is as hard to be oneself in a church as it is in any other community gathering. Stereotypes and stereotype threat hangs “in the air” of halls and the sanctuaries of our churches as well. And this is true for both men and women, as well as for minorities of any kind, although the threats are different.

Read the article, read the book if you care to (I may post on it again down the road).

What do you think?

Where do you sense stereotype threat?

How can we be on guard against stereotype bias?

Or should we be on guard? (Perhaps it is functional good, valuable in a society, not an evil to be overcome or eliminated.)

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Bias or Just Natural? at Jesus Creed.

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