This week there was a fabulous article, by Alison Coil, on the bias against women in the sciences and why men don’t believe it exists. For ‘men’ you could just as well read ‘the establishment’ because we know not all men and we know that some of those ‘men’ might as well be women that have ‘made it’. ‘Made it’ meaning a permanent job, research funding, big glory publications and your version of fame in your field.
The people that ‘make it’ like to believe they made it because they have some sort of superior quality to the folks that didn’t make it. As Coil puts it – it is hard for many to believe that those who have succeeded in science have not done so entirely due to their own innate brilliance. Science – and many other professions – tend toward being a monoculture where they favour ‘people like me’, which means if you are a white male (in the West anyway), you can automatically have an advantage whether you know it or not.
Weirdly, often the same people that think people only ‘make it’ because of superior ability, don’t apply the same standards to women or minorities; while those that have ‘made it’ have done so through their own ‘brilliance’, you may have just gotten there because you are a woman. There is a lot of going on about reverse sexism and these mystical things called ‘quotas’ which are biased against men – even there are no real quotas for academic jobs and academic publishing in the main. Believers in the success through ‘superior ability’ model (for the right people of course) sometimes even expound that it’s actually BETTER to be a minority/woman because you have more opportunities, in this gender balance gone mad culture.
This is clearly bullshit. If this were true, then we’d have a gender/ethnic balance by now because this apparent abundance of ‘more opportunities’ for the minorities has been a ‘priority’ for at least 30 years. At least people have been telling me this for the last 30 years.
In my own experience, I have held four peer-reviewed independent research fellowships and each time I have gotten one, I have been told by at least one person (usually more) ‘you only got it ’cause you’re a girl’, like some 7-year old on a baseball field. I have won the occasional award here and there and again – I’ve been told ‘you only got it because you are a girl’. Incidentally, I also won a bike race once because I was a girl, see there weren’t as many girls in the girls field as there were boys in the boys field so it was easier for me to win ‘because I was a girl’. Currently, I, like other scientists, sit on funding panels and scientific advisory committees – but I get to do this because I am a girl, whereas the boys get to do it because they are really clever. It couldn’t possibly be that I might be good at it or that I might have the same ‘innate brilliance’ that they do.
To me these two positions are mutually exclusive, but this is what bias is about. This and why it is so hard to fix within the system. This idea that somehow I have made it because I am great, whereas you have made it solely because you are a girl, or had a bunch of favours, or were merely in the right place at the right time also inhibits any inward introspection about what is wrong with the system and how to fix it. It is also not very logical to think that your success is completely meritocratic and that someone else’s must be due to ‘quotas’. The reality is there is a big package of luck (and yes favours) associated with anyone’s success, it is simply not just based on ‘ability’. A mere look at the statistics of going from PhD to Post-doc to PI can tell you that there are a lot of innately brilliant people that don’t ‘make it’ in science. There are simply not enough jobs. If you work in academia, like I do, you see all sorts of very very talented people leave that could have easily ‘made it’ given different circumstances (funding, job availability, a chance), there are some pretty massive cracks in the system. It is a bit like the Victorian pipes under London, all of that water could have been useful, 1/2 of it ends up in the Thames.
In a perfect world people would be hired just on the basis of ability with no other consideration. This is what we all want, a fair playing field for all where there is no other criteria than meritocracy and where you don’t get hired just ‘because you are a girl’. But here’s the rub it is not a fair playing field and those folks who are ‘the most able’ are really difficult to distinguish as the measures can be quite subjective. People have different experiences. For scientists, different science is published in different journals, with different citation rates. For tech positions, people have different coding experience, different education, different people they have worked for. The best people are not always easy to identify and when life is subjective, bias is a big contributor to decisions. We must be aware of it, and we must take steps to stop it and we must pay attention to the data that is telling us we aren’t doing good enough to address these issues, because, as a society, we are not.