So you think you are not biased against any group. So what?

In the “Men behaving splendidly” session at the APA, there was some discussion of what percentage of women should we push for. Elizabeth Harman made a strong and important point; it was roughly this: When we give conferences we are educating the next generation, so we should have 50 % women philosophy speakers.

Whatever the right numbers, it is a very safe bet that a conference without women speakers, or with a very small minority of them, is not encouraging women to participate in philosophy.

But, you might say, you don’t think badly of women philosophers; you may an effort to include some, but it doesn’t always work out. Well, read below; in some ways it makes points made at the APA, but briefly and directly:

From Nancy Di Thomaso:

In a study I conducted among white workers, I found that 70% of the participants’ jobs, past and present, had been landed with the help of friends or relatives who were in a position to provide inside information, exert influence on the candidates’ behalf, or directly offer job or promotion opportunities.

Yet virtually all of these employees, as well as white managers I’ve interviewed, maintain that they oppose racism and are in favor of equal opportunity.

In my work on diversity, I often meet CEOs who are genuinely concerned about disparities and are highly motivated to increase their organizations’ diversity. Yet they frame the issue in terms of discrimination and “bias against.” They don’t see the powerful locked-arms effect of the “bias for” that’s prevalent in hiring and promotion decisions. I once spoke to an executive whose company was being celebrated for its commitment to diversity, but over dinner I was told proudly by one of the key HR managers that the company relies on referrals from existing employees for many of their middle-management hires.

Which brings me to take an unpopular stand: Up with bureaucracy.

I don’t mean the kind of bureaucracy that drives people crazy. I mean the kind that provides minority candidates with protections from biases that are embedded in corporate decision-making. It’s perfectly logical for managers to want to interview and hire known quantities—résumés can be opaque and mendacious, and there’s no Angie’s List equivalent for finding highly recommended employees (at least not yet). But when it comes to hiring and promotion, I’m in favor of a systems approach that reduces reliance on the kinds of judgments that lead to bad decisions—an approach that is measured not on process but on outcomes with regard to the competency, race, ethnicity, and gender of hired or promoted employees.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that a systems approach can feel inadequate; the “numbers” never tell a complete story. Neither companies nor universities rely solely on test scores, because they know that doing so wouldn’t lead to the best outcomes. So the trick is creating a systems approach that evaluates candidates in a holistic way. That means an array of metrics, from competency tests to psychological profiles regarding fit for the job. Companies need to establish specific criteria on what constitutes competence in any given job, and they need to collect data on those specific criteria rather than rely on assumptions or impressions. To be effective, metrics need to be specified in advance, and they need to be up to date and not based solely on managerial perceptions.

Part of the solution is a new mind-set on executives’ part. There’s abundant evidence that just trying harder or wanting to do better doesn’t make a difference. What does matter is being conscious of the decisions we are making—we need to move these crucial decisions from the unconscious to the conscious realm. If we think about being accountable for the decisions we make, and if we stop believing that we can make truly unbiased or objective decisions, then we are less likely to make decisions that reflect implicit or unconscious bias in favor of people like ourselves—and more likely to end up with a workforce that is more diverse and better fits the needs of our organizations and their global clients.

5 thoughts on “So you think you are not biased against any group. So what?

  1. Reblogged this on Empathic Philosophy Engineer and commented:
    Achieving meritocracy—the idea that people advance in work and life based on ability—is complicated. Well-intentioned efforts to implement meritocracy in schools and the workplace can actually have the opposite effect.
    MIT Sloan professors Emilio Castilla and Denise Lewin Loyd present research that details how even simple attempts to instill meritocracy and inclusion in an organization can become fraught with complexity.
    Castilla calls it “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations,” whereby promoting an institution as a meritocracy can actually have some “unintended consequences of increased bias.”
    In some of his experiments, he found that managers who were embedded in organizations that emphasized meritocracy actually showed greater bias against women, for example.

  2. Mavaddat, thanks so much. I’ve seen some references to the research you mention, but it’s worth a careful look.

  3. Thanks for the references!

    I disagreed with Liz Harman during the session, but only partially. I agree with its spirit but objected that this would require a minority to travel excessively. So I (only half-jokingly) said that I’d settle for proportionate representation, and then commented that proportionality in presence would still be a huge improvement! Alas, this remains true.

  4. To some extent, there’s a pragmatic element here. Any movement to fight oppression has comprehensiveness as its ultimate goal. Or it ought to. That is to say that ultimately we want all people to have a fair chance in philosophy – women, qua women, but also non-white people, trans* people, queer folks, and people who don’t have a ritzy pedigree or class background.

    My impression is that movements like the Gendered Conference Campaign chose a narrow focus (i.e., women, qua women, in philosophy) for pretty understandable reasons: here’s a campaign that can get all of us on board working toward achievable goals. But, to me, the narrow focus of the Gendered Conference Campaign carries with it an implicit promise of solidarity to the other folks who aren’t necessarily helped by it, but who face issues just as big and important as those faced by women and who have been enthusiastic on its behalf.

    And so it seems that once something is won – like Kate suggested in #4, i.e., proportional representation of women – it would make sense to expand efforts to work on goals that are deeper, broader, and more inclusive. And working toward 50% representation for women throughout conferences and throughout the field of philosophy, while an awesome sounding end state, might break that implicit promise of solidarity.

    Or so it seems to me, anyway.

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