Women and Minorities have got it good, if they are fictional of course.

As all y’all know, because I am constantly reminding everyone, I am from Tennessee. I like to think I am not racist and I really sincerely hope I am not racist, but the culture I grew up in has a bad, complicated history with racism so I know I have to keep a watchful eye. I have to be vigilant. When I was being drug up in the 1970s, I remember my old aunt who said all sorts of crazy stuff about people who weren’t white and (protestant) christians. She believed so much in her misplaced superiority, she and my uncle moved home because the neighborhood they lived in had too many African-Americans move into it. My mother, suitably horrified by her much older sister, usually worked pretty hard to shuffle her away from me and my brother when she started talking about such things, as we – like most 6 and 9 year old kids – were incredibly confused by all of this. It wasn’t until I was older I worked out my aunt was just an ill-educated bigot.

When I was quite a bit older than 6, I taught high school science for a year. I taught in an affluent Southern town where the school mascot was the ‘Rebel’. The ‘Rebel’ was a slightly chunky Colonel Sandersesque cartoon Reb, complete with Civil war mustache and, amazingly, waving a Confederate flag. This was in 1999, I have to admit I was suitably shocked when I saw it waving in the breeze off the top of the school, but what did I do? Pathetically, nothing. Fortunately only a very short time after I arrived, the Rebels played a football game against another local high school. At this game, one of the parents of a player from the other school saw the Rebel fans a waving that ridiculous flag and took it up with the authorities. The result? The State of Tennessee made the Rebels get rid of their Confederate flag, thankfully.

While this tale makes the matter seem like a seamless affair, it wasn’t. The students, some of the teachers and parents were appalled their Rebel was getting a face-lift and used that classic Southern argument ‘heritage not hate’. While I am happy sit over a beer and pontificate about my civil war knowledge and the fact that war was NOT all about slavery, this ‘heritage’ argument is just stupid. It is especially silly in East Tennessee where most folk’s ancestors supported or fought for the Union, not the Confederacy. More importantly though, everybody and their brother that ISN’T from the South thinks that flag signifies racism, no matter how hard you try to reclaim it.

In order to prove their ‘heritage not hate’ argument my students polled themselves (anonymously, of course) to find out if they were indeed racist or rather if the school had a racist atmosphere. And what a surprise for a school that was about 95% white, they found they were not racist – hoorah! – thus proving that ‘heritage not hate’ was a plausible reason why they could still act like a bunch of fools and wave that flag around with impunity, because it didn’t mean racism. To them anyway. Fortunately, the state of Tennessee had other ideas.

If you ask most people if they are racist, they will almost certainly say ‘no’. Not very many people think they are racist, or sexist or chauvanistic themselves when you ask them. Not many people will likely even admit to being victims unconscious bias (which we all are). Of course I have no link for a study on this, but how many people do YOU meet that will just slap there cards on the table and say, ‘yep I’m a racist’. It is more likely they will say something along lines of “Now, I have a lot of friends who are ____________, BUT….” , which, at least in my experience, is a mechanism of putting forth some kind of non-racist credentials so then you can proceed to say whatever kind of biased statement you want.

As I am sure many (if not most) of you know there was a recent study in PNAS on how there was a 2:1 bias towards women being highered for tenure-track positions. There’s been much criticism of this study – such as from my fellow Occam T blogger Athene Donald. And how did the researches conduct this experiment? In their own words:

To tease out sex bias, we created fictional candidate profiles identical in every respect except for sex, and asked faculty to rank these candidates for a tenure-track job

Fictional characters, oh good, because that is realistic. I am sure they conducted their investigation properly, with these fictional characters, but what exactly do we learn from this? That in a fictional study, people will behave as they think they should behave and probably think they do behave. Unconscious bias isn’t easy to sniff out, even in yourself, so how exactly is this completely unrealistic study helping to change things for women, for minorites, for anyone that is not in the majority? It isn’t. The danger is that investigations like this can be used as a canard and a dangerous one that may just keep us in academia from addressing the real problems for diversity in STEM.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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One Response to Women and Minorities have got it good, if they are fictional of course.

  1. The study design only works if the people rating the candidate profile don’t know that it’s fictional or that they are being ‘scoped out’. Of course, this raises other issues, see e.g. this famous study, which actually got the people who did it arrested.