Some Animals are More Equal than Others

This week I attended the Royal Society’s Diversity Day. As everyone remarked, the audience was indeed remarkably diverse. Signing of the talks for the hard-of-hearing was available and the standard white male was in (relatively) short supply both on the platform and on the floor (though you could argue that more in attendance to hear the talks would actually have been better). The day kicked off with a talk of how MI5 is being turned around on the diversity front by head spook Andrew Parker, who was using the occasion to ‘come out’ about the organisation’s work.

But as ever much of the interest came not in the set pieces, but in the conversations over coffee and in the Q+A. Paul Walton stressed how the obstacles for gender equality still lie in getting middle managers to move on from ‘there is no problem’, through ‘it’s a woman’s problem’ to finally getting to grips with the issue. My own experience regrettably shows me, still, too many instances of those who haven’t got beyond that first stage. These are folk capable of bandying unpleasant remarks around, thereby exhibiting an extraordinary unawareness of their own contributions to the hostile world so many women face. As regards the second stage I was interested to read recently the account of training in ‘ally skills’ being developed in Silicon Valley. The aim of this to ensure that everyone understands bad attitudes are not a ‘woman’s problem’ but it is incumbent on everyone, particularly men, to intervene when sexism starts to rear its ugly head in casual conversation. The tech industry obviously has particularly severe cultural issues, but it strikes me that just about any workplace might benefit from what the instigator of this mode of training describes as the exact opposite of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

However the title of this post refers to another problem, a form of unconscious bias, which I was reminded of during conversation over coffee on Monday. I don’t think this problem has a particular label attached to it, although one might consider it as equivalent to a double standard. This is the case, common during committee discussions (whether about grants, promotion, recruitment or any other situation where individuals are being judged) when different criteria are implicitly used for men and women. If you aren’t wide awake and looking out for trouble this is an easy ‘mistake’ to overlook, since usually plenty of verbiage floats between the one case and the other. But look harder and it can be spotted all too often.

For instance take the case where materials scientists are being judged. The man who has a patent to their name is given a thumbs up; when a comparable woman is judged the question is raised as to whether the patent is generating cash or has already translated into a useful product. I’ve seen this precise problem happen at a committee (in an organisation not my own). Indeed, it wasn’t used against a single woman but two, who both had this higher hurdle applied to their submissions whereas the various men escaped similar scrutiny.  I’m glad to say on this occasion a (male) committee member highlighted it and provoked a re-evaluation.

It might equally apply to the over-slavish use of metrics. A man with a high h index is given an approving tick, whereas a woman whose h index is exactly the same is suddenly judged instead on which journals she has published in and then gets marked down for the absence of a publication in a top tier journal – without anyone seeking to check if the man would pass that specific test too. Spelling it out this way makes it obvious how unfair it is, but in the normal cut and thrust of a committee meeting it is far too easy to overlook what could be deliberate manipulation but is more likely simply to be unconscious bias at work.

I feel this quote from a senior (female) manager in industry neatly sums up this sort of double standard in yet another form:

For example, a male manager looking to promote a man may say: ‘Chuck him in at the deep end and let’s see if he sinks or swims.’ The same manager may say of a female candidate: ‘Is she ready yet? We don’t want to set her up to fail.’ Words said with the best of intentions, without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.

We should create a name for this phenomenon so that it is easily labelled and called out. I think the Orwellian ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’, abbreviated to ‘Equal Animal Bias’ would do the trick, but others may have neater suggestions. It is a way of doing down those who do not fit the standard mould, whatever mould that might be, and is pernicious even if done without conscious malice.

How to solve this? I like the idea of a committee sitting down with a bunch of cards – take your pick either red and yellow like a football referee’s, or with more graphic illustrations or names of common failings – and holding up an appropriate one when a member commits a foul. An additional benefit of such an approach would be to spread the responsibility across the whole committee, rather than assuming, yet again, it is the woman’s job to point out egregious behaviour. It might even introduce a bit of healthy competition to see who could spot the most examples. Would it work to train the more recalcitrant and repeat offender of bias demonstration? Nothing like a bit of embarrassment to change behaviour. But it could only work if a sufficient proportion were appropriately awake and trained to spot the glaring errors and double standards. Anyone up to try this flashcard calling out?

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