Judging on Potential (or Not)

I was trying to lay my hands on a quote I heard recently on the radio about creativity by Wolfgang von Goethe to kickstart this blogpost, and instead (amongst 100’s of others of his quotes) I came upon this:

‘Girls we love for what they are; young men for what they promise to be.’

Written around two centuries ago, this habit of acknowledging the potential of men to become something other (and implicitly greater) than they appear to be today whereas women can be no more than they currently are, is clearly of long-standing. In an academic framework this is tantamount to saying that women must already have accomplished the great things in life before they can be appointed/promoted/respected but men, hey, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. That view seems to go back rather further than I might have believed possible. Yes I know the context in which Goethe intended his remark to be considered is bound to be very different from modern academia. Nevertheless I suspect this idea of loving young men for what they might be going to be probably goes back (again in a rather different context) to the Greeks’ attitude towards catamites, whether considered within a Platonic ideal or not.

Women can only be what they are: they are apparently debarred from having potential. Young men, on the other hand, can be imagined to be anything you want, including the next high-flyer for rapid promotion. Evidence, in an extreme version of this position, may simply not be required. They went to the right school/studied at the feet of the right man and therefore they are ‘one of us’ (well obviously not ‘us’, because I am not one of them on this front) and All Right, whatever their demonstrated competence may be. I am putting this in an extreme way to demonstrate, by reductio ad absurdum, just what a nonsensical way of proceeding this is.

Further searching of the web for my elusive Goethe quote then threw up

“When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”

Again, think just how much this resonates with how we treat the genders differently at the present time. In the first sentence replace man with woman – who we are going to treat as they are because, as Goethe has indicated, we don’t think they have potential and then, by his own logic we make them ‘worse than (s)he is’. Isn’t that too often the outcome? That women are going to be marked down, but yet again we give the man the benefit of the doubt.

Read these quotes and paragraphs in the context of the gender differences in the success rates of women and men in the UK (CRUK or RCUK) or Canada . A quick search shows, as at the ERC, the gender differences are beginning to disappear as people are becoming more aware of their own biases and those of referees, but nevertheless it is hard to imagine we have yet eradicated this idea of a man with potential and a woman who is only as good as what she has already done. Time and again these hidden variables lurk in judgements that are apparently only about ‘merit’ and ‘excellence’.

I have used the pair of referee quotes below before in talks. They stick with me because of their stark difference in attitude to a particular man and a particular woman. They are taken verbatim from referees’ comments to a promotion panel, to indicate the extraordinary lengths some writers go to present the hard evidence and then nuance their conclusions the way they want to go almost regardless of what they have just written.

Woman A: ‘ a consistent output of more than a dozen papers per year, despite a period of maternity leave and currently working less than full time; more than £2M of current research funding held as PI….however she is still at a relatively early stage of her career and this makes me uncomfortable about recommending her….

Man B: ‘I should comment on the fact that all but 3 of B’s recent publications do not include Y [his mentor, still in the same department] as a co-author. However for about half of these B appears to be the senior author, and presumably the intellectual driving force behind the work….my overall view is that…he is highly deserving…’

Panels, individuals (as referees) and each and every one of us when we look at a PhD student or researcher we are in a position to ‘judge’, informally or formally, should be very aware of the mental traps we could be falling into. Judging women on performance and men on potential is simply one such trap. The Royal Society has just produced a neat guide to help us on our way when forming composite opinions in groups made up, inevitably, of individuals. Relevant to any decision-making process (about other people or about science itself) is the statement to be found in this guide: high confidence does not always imply greater knowledge. I am sure at a certain level we all know this but it is so easy to be fooled by the over-confident person who may in fact turn out to be pig-ignorant. Who, at a meeting has not watched some poised and assertive character talk down the genuine expert (mansplaining is of course just one manifestation of this unpleasant trait).

Finally I found the quote I had been trying to track down in the first place by calling up iPlayer and trying to work out where, in a three hour programme, I had heard the phrases I sought:

The very hardest thinking will not bring thoughts. They must come like good children of god and cry here we are. Only once you’ve given up thinking do ideas come soldiering in with their hands in their pockets.

I can’t actually find the quote on the web myself, so I’ve transcribed it from Sarah Walker’s words, but if Radio 3 says it’s true I assume it is (accuracy of translation permitting). I will need to return to this quote at a later date, to write the blog I thought I was sitting down to write this time….


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One Response to Judging on Potential (or Not)

  1. MaryQ says:

    I would consider this overwrought victim-mentality hyperbole had I not lived this very thing myself. And I while I was only somewhat shocked when I did not earn tenure and promotion despite having a case that many people considered a slam dunk, I was completely shocked when, three years later, one of my former male colleagues from my former place of employment, working in the same field, with demonstrably inferior metrics than I in every category did receive tenure and promotion, based on his “potential”, which, if PubMed and NIH reporter are to be trusted, has not materialized in the decade that has passed since this happened.

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