Is your life permeated by discrimination?

An article at Slate by Tim Harford contains some shockers.  The question of the pervasiveness of discrimination is really the more important one, but let’s start with what seems to be a belief that it cannot exist.

Thus the first shocker:

… one thing we economists think we know about discrimination is that competition should tend to erode it.

The idea comes from an article published 50 years ago by economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker. The reasoning is simple enough: A business that deliberately offers shoddy service or uncompetitive prices to some customers, or that turns down smart minority applicants in favor of less-qualified white male applicants, is throwing money away. If it is a government bureaucracy or a powerful monopolist, that’s a loathsome but sustainable choice. But racist or sexist businesses with many competitors are likely to be shut down by the bankruptcy courts long before the human rights lawyers get to them.

Cognitive psychologists and neuroeconomists are happily placing things economists think they know in question, but doesn’t ordinary experience make this one seem implausible? As a white women, I dread dealing with, for example, car dealers, garage mechanics and anyone who has installed a fancy computer thermostat on a heating system. Educational institutions are not high on my list of institutions with equitable practices either, nor medical ones. The list for minorities would include much more.

A comment from Harford suggests that an economist might say that the market is still working on it. If so, it is clearly too slow.

The second: I suspect many of us think that discrimination is very pervasive, but we might be reluctant to say so in a professional context, because we do not have the evidence. Well, perhaps it should be collected, given the research by Caitlin Knowles Myers that Harford reports on.  The research, which is forthcoming in Applied Economics, is available here.  And Harford  has published further comments by Myers here.  Here are the results as stated by Harford:

She, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops … in the Boston area and watched how long it took men and women to be served. Her conclusion: Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women. (There is also evidence that blacks wait longer than whites, the young wait longer than the old, and the ugly wait longer than the beautiful. But these effects are statistically not as persuasive.)

20 seconds is hardly a big deal, and the length of time is really incidental. What is important is the question the report raises about is about how pervasive these small and almost subliminal acts of sexism and racism really are. And what is the price paid by a more stressful life?

Yay Michigan!

Some good news: Michigan has barred discrimination against transgender state employees.  (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has issued an order that bars discrimination against state workers based on their “gender identity or expression,” which protects the rights of those who behave, dress or identify as members of the opposite sex.

The order, which Granholm signed Wednesday, adds gender identity to a list of other prohibited grounds for discrimination that includes religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, height, weight, marital status, politics, disability or genetic information.

“Cat Power Feminism”

The above phrase brought people to this site three times yesterday.  That seems enough of an excuse to share a favorite youtube video.  There are many copies of the video on  Searching under “cat man do” will bring up some of them.

Thanks to the many friends who have sent me a copy of it.

One of the youtube versions has this addition:

‘Wake Up Cat’ is by an English animator called Simon Tofield and it is actually called ‘Cat Man Do’. He works for an animation company called Tandem Films.

Beth Ditto’s Advice

For all who woke up on this day after Thanksgiving with actual or incipient self-loathing for the number of calories consumed yesterday:

If I ever [were granted] three wishes, this would be one for sure. I would wish that all the people who are dissatisfied with their bodies be granted immunity from all the bad feelings.

We are the guinea pigs force-fed ads that tell us how pathetic we are: that we will never be loved, happy or valuable unless we have the body, the face, the hair, even the personality that will apparently be ours, if only we buy their products.

The first step to letting go of the hatred is to stop blaming yourself for your body. Step two is accepting that not everyone will agree with you. You will have to defend yourself regularly.

I can’t stress enough that it is hard work, so don’t expect to wake up tomorrow feeling like a new woman. Instead, pat yourself on the back for your daily progress.

From her column today.

Are female infants more caring?

As the NY Times and CNN are reporting, important new research is telling us that infants can distinguish between helpers and hinderers and they prefer the helpers; from the NYTimes:

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday’s journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly-eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly-eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Further, there were no differences in reactions between boy and girl babies.

The lead author, Kilely Hamlin, presented related research to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology in June, 2007; this newer research indicates comparable skills in 3 month olds.

So how about the male  brain that is naturally absorbed by a mechanical world and not attuned to the social world that Baron-Cohen has written about:

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.

For Baron-Cohen, autism is a form of an extreme male brain. Autism very rarely is diagnosed at 9 months, and so it is on the cards that the difference between girls and boys shows up later, as boys might might lose a capacity for empathy just as, it is conjectured, some children start out with synaesthesia and lose it. But given the most recent research, people who assume that the baby girls are sweeter and more empathetic than the boys may well be teaching this difference rather than discovering it from observation.

Stereotypes, cultural variation, and perceptions of competence

From the NY Times, via Lemmings, we learn of a study suggesting that whatever traits a culture values in the workplace, women are taken to lack those traits:

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed “inspiring others” as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was “delegating” that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators.

The NY Times article contains loads of useful data on gender stereotypes and perception in the workplace. Though some of the studies seem a little dodgy to me. For example this one, which at least appears (haven’t had time to read it) to make some rather bold assumptions about what women find sexually attractive.

He is the author of one such study, in which he showed respondents a video of a woman wearing a sexy low-cut blouse with a tight skirt or a skirt and blouse that were conservatively cut. The woman recited the same lines in both, and the viewer was either told she was a secretary or an executive. Being more provocatively dressed had no effect on the perceived competence of the secretary, but it lowered the perceived competence of the executive dramatically. (Sexy men don’t have that disconnect, Professor Glick said. While they might lose respect for wearing tight pants and unbuttoned shirts to the office, the attributes considered most sexy in men — power, status, salary — are in keeping with an executive image at work.)

If salary were really what women found *sexy*, you’d expect to see photo-spreads of dumpy middle-aged men and their big paychecks whenever advertisers wanted to appeal to heterosexual women. What’s with the models with six-packs and chiseled jawbones? Don’t they know that does nothing for women??

Philosophy and the Man of Reason

This post ends with a real question.  Please do tell us about the view from your place. 

In my early days in feminist philosophy, a lot of women philosophers were talking about how Anglophone philosophy and philosophical writing was still dominated by theories and examples reflecting its monkish past.  That is, the conceptions of knowledge in general, knowledge of other minds, rationality and  decision-making all positioned their subjects as solitary, with little in the way of demands on their time, and with formal rules or formalizable procedures as the best guides to good outcomes.    

Philosopher’s fascination with the apriori encouraged some  to take such remarks as merely sociological objections to philosophical substance and, as such, close to irrelevant to their conclusions.  That view then provided them with a reason for not reading the actual arguments.  However, the feminist texts, once read, are much harder to dismiss.  Here one might cite  Jenny Lloyd’s The Man of Reason, Lorraine Code’s objection that Gettier was concerned with what is in fact a very restricted kind of knowledge, Helen Longino’s conception of science as social knowledge, and Annette Baier’s description of men’s moral philosophy as largely treating morality as like a system of traffic laws for self-assertors.  And many, many others.

Over thirty years later, the traditional conception is still robust in some quarters, but feminist thought has an unexpected ally in much in cognitive neuroscience and naturalized and  empirically informed philosophy.  While some cognitive psychologists, such as Marc Hauser, are still looking for inborn moral rules, the more dominant idea is that little in living a rational human life is accomplished by reason or rules alone.  John Doris, for example, has strong arguments against the idea that rational reflection could underlie human morality.**  And as for the demands on one’s time, real human beings evolved to make fast and accurate judgments; epistemically or methodologically downgrading or ignoring all the information carried by the reactions of instinct and the emotions, as  has been done for centuries in philosophy,  can be vastly impoverishing.  Thus Hume, who consigned the most important human mental operations to emotion and instinct, was long regarded as the arch-sceptic, until a losening of the grip of monkish intellectual virtues enabled us to see his genuinely constructive project.

Of course, one might want to, e.g., side with Kant over Hume, or Hauser over Doris and others; the point here is that the dialectic is much more open and congenial to strands in feminist thought that were once widely dismissed.

I and many other feminists can remember floating such ideas in earlier decades.  The  results were too often not pretty, though positioning the claims as naturalized philosophy could provide some protection.  However, as a close friend at a conference pointed out to me, now there are experiments and clinical findings, which  have  made a lot of difference.

Is the man of reason now just one among many on a the philosophical stage?  How does it look to you?

**As far as I know, this work is  not yet  in print.

Note:  Earlier entries on this blog have discussed aspects of the feminist challenges; see, for  example, here and here.