Sunday, February 26, 2012
It's All White Guys Up There
This colleague is a young scientist who began and ended the discussion by expressing concern for women in science and how their experiences might be improved. However, he gave a couple of examples of instances in which female colleagues had behaved in an inexplicable manner (from his point of view).
The primary example was a comment that a female colleague made during a meeting in which she pointed out the preponderance of white males presiding over this particular meeting. She apparently said something like, "It's all white guys up there", to my young colleague. He was somewhat flustered by her statement, which was loud enough to be overheard by others.
My colleague interpreted this woman's statement to mean that she was complaining about the lack of women in authority positions and wondered what he should have said in response. He hinted that this woman was disgruntled in general and that perhaps her outburst was due to her warped perceptions. I hear that sentiment quite often whenever a woman (or some other minority) points out a bias. Perhaps it's true in some cases. Perhaps such people become warped after years of biased treatment. Or perhaps it's the observer's warped perception of anyone who complains about bias.
My colleague's second question was what could be done to improve things (for women)? He suggested specifically the idea of having a woman in a position of authority in an organization. I wasn't sure how he thought this might help. That such an appointment would somehow counterbalance any bias occurring elsewhere in the organization? Put a woman in a position to help other women? Send a message to would-be chauvinists? Set up a role model for other women in the organization? My response was that I did not think this would necessarily help. There is no guarantee that a woman in such a position would be inclined to "help" women under her authority. Also, just because a woman sits in a position of authority within an organization does not automatically lead to the elimination of bias in that workplace. More disturbing was the suggestion that a woman should be promoted for such a position in an effort to "help women", rather than because she was the most qualified.
It was apparent to me that he really did not believe that there was any bias going on, that what needed to be done was to change the perception of those unfortunate women who are bitter about their careers. He was suggesting that having a woman in a more visible authority position would calm such apprehensions and stop hysterical outbursts about "all those white guys up there". My colleague was hinting that perhaps he could influence such decisions, thereby helping the status of women. I was quite exasperated by this attitude. It reflected the perception of someone who has no idea what bias feels like, much less what to do about it.
I've observed that people are quite blind to bias when they are not the target of that bias.
When you've always been treated fairly and accepted as being qualified to work in a particular field (e.g., men working in STEM fields), it may be exceedingly difficult to put yourself into the place of someone who is not. Furthermore, you are unlikely to even be aware that others are treated differently from you. Women in STEM fields often find that they must prove themselves again and again, whereas men are just assumed to be competent--a bias sometimes called Prove It Again. How might such an experience affect someone throughout a career....in contrast to being assumed to be competent, just because you belong to a majority group? If you've only had to prove yourself a few times, you might think it's not such a big deal and what's all the fuss about? But what if you were always being asked to prove your competence, did not really feel accepted by the majority group, and had the impression that only one slip up and you would be excoriated? Such biased treatment adds up over time. It's a subtle effect, but no less damaging to the victim.
To do anything about bias, one must first become aware of it and how it typically manifests itself. Most (white) male colleagues I've mentioned this particular bias to look at me as if I had suddenly sprouted horns. They question the existence of such bias, since they've been blissfully unaware of it...hence, it must not exist. That is human nature....to deny something one has never experienced. Moreover, they have no frame of reference to understand the psychological impact of bias.
Even if someone accepts the notion that others may be treated in a biased manner, they still are woefully ignorant of how it feels, how widespread it may be, and how such bias may manifest itself in various subtle ways. They may even be unaware of how they unconsciously participate in such biased behavior. I've given examples previously of how some men, in a misguided attempt to be chivalrous, hurt women by trying to "help them" direct their work, but are actually undermining the woman's authority.
I could see this type of thinking at work during our discussion about female scientists and their puzzling behavior. Those poor women, they need all the help they can get. It's the knight-in-shining-armor syndrome. Their first reaction is to ride in on a steed and rescue the damsel in distress, whether she wants rescuing or not. The knight only sees things from his perspective (rescuer of damsels) and cannot imagine anything else. But maybe she's there doing her dissertation research on fire-breathing dragons? Perhaps she's also a knight and sees him as competition? It's not hard to imagine that her reaction to his rescue attempt is likely to be unexpected and puzzling. Until he bothers to really understand what she's all about and what her concerns are, there is little hope that he can do her any good.
In the next post, I provide a compelling insight into prejudice and how quickly it alters the victim's behavior.