Untraining your bias

Did you know? Women are underrepresented in mathematics and science oriented faculties in Israel. In fact, to say “women are underrepresented” is a HUGE underrepresentation of how few women there are. For example, in the Technion’s mathematics faculty, you can count the number of female members on three fingers, but the total faculty member count is almost 70 (this includes the emeritus and retired professors, which is generally ok, since why shouldn’t there be female emeritae? Anyway, even without them, the percentage of women is in the single digits). The statistics aren’t much better for other faculties and universities.
This was in the news lately, as the ministry of science released a report on the issue. This is a Good Thing: now people are aware of the problem, and will positively definitely surely immediately act to do something about it. At least, the minister of science said he would!
(Though you can bet that so did all the previous ministers of science. That’s not to say that things aren’t better than they were before, and that no efforts were invested – I’m sure many efforts were invested, and surely things are (slightly) better than before. It just takes a lot of time to fix these things, and the reasons for the underrepresentation are probably deeply rooted inside both Israeli culture and its education system, and will not be changed by a simple government program but rather by prolonged erosion as older generations are replaced by (hopefully) more equality-oriented fresh ones).

But being aware of the problem is half the solution, right? And now you, although you aren’t a minister of science just yet, you can do your part to complete the other half.

What can you do, anyway, at least on the personal level? There are many apparent reasons as to why women are underrepresented in academia and industry, but the first thing you can do is to stop discriminating against them.
“Me? Discriminating against women?! Blasphemy, heresy, and outright profanity! To call me a misogynist is an injustice so immense, just to think it should result in indictment!”
Woha there. That might be true, but it turns out that women are discriminated against when being evaluated on their work, performance, academic record, lecturing, writing, reading, lion taming, dressing habits, or pretty much anything you can think of when compared to men. I take as an example a notable study found here. In this study, members from various faculties of different universities were asked to rank application materials of a student applying for a laboratory manager position. All faculty members received exactly the same c.v and statement letters to review, apart from one difference: in half the forms the name of the student was that of a male (it was “John”), and in the other it was female (it was ”Jennifer”). They gave scores on “competence”, “hireability”, “deserving-of-mentoring” and salary. Here is one graph from that paper:


The application forms were identical, yet the results – not so: male students had better rankings on average than female ones. One possible conclusion is that just seeing a female name on top of a c.v causes people to rank the applicants lower / seeing a male name causes them to rank higher (there may be other possible conclusions, and the study itself may be biased / shoddy; I admit I am no expert in statistics and experimental methods in psychology, and cannot judge the quality of the study better than your average jack-o’-the-mathematics-student. For the rest of this post, I assume the above conclusion is true).

A good question to ask is, “how many people are susceptible to this bias? After all, most people aren’t in HR, and don’t have to review c.v’s and interview people all the time.” Of course it depends on where you are in life both spatially and temporally. In academia, at least, it’s almost inevitable to have to do something similar at some point in your life, even as a grad student: for example, teaching assistants assist in checking homework assignments and exams (the latter are supposed to be anonymous for precisely the reason of reducing biases). Then again, most people aren’t in academia, either.

Knowing this happens, can we overcome it? I think it’s safe to say that many biases such as these are subconscious, in that it seems odd to me that reviewers sit down and genuinely say to themselves, “Oh! I see a woman’s name here! Curse this curriculum vitae, it belongs to an inferior and devilish creature and should be burned at once.” (alternatively, “Oh! I see a man’s name here! This blessed angel will receive all the gifts my prowess can gather”, but we’ll stick with the female-negative instead of male-positive version. To distinguish between the two, the study should have also sent neutral / nameless application forms).
Indeed, it is hard to openly declare “This candidate is a woman, and for that she must suffer! Minus 10 points for Gryffindor”, because Western society today, for most part, denounces that kind of activity. However, it’s much easier to just say to yourself, “I don’t know, I don’t feel very strongly about this candidate-who-happens-to-be-female”, and subtract 10 points regardless. Probably the decision to rate the applications as they did was made at a far deeper level.
But fighting subconscious decisions is hard. Unless we have very well defined metrics, e.g we accept candidates based exclusively on the number of publications (in which case we can have contemporary machines grade and sort them), there will always be a “gut feeling” in part of the selection process. Many times this can be a good thing, since “gut feeling” is based on your previous experience and helps make generally not-so-bad choices when facing decisions with many uncertainties and missing information (and there is a lot of missing information here; we have reduced the candidate’s entire life to a statement essay and some recommendation letters). However, if that gut feeling is tainted with ethnic and gender biases, how are we to know how strong they are? How are we to differentiate between Good Gut Feeling and Sexist Gut Feeling?

The proper thing to do is just find out our biases and fix them. To think to yourself, “What are the objective qualities I am looking for? What merits and flaws does this woman have? If this had been a man, would I have rated him any differently?” But this is hard, since this is not a man, and the Golden Objective Qualities will not always reveal themselves to you, and as you review the application with all these things in mind, there will be a nagging voice at the back of your head whispering in distress, “this is a female, damn it don’t screw this up, you need to rate her fairly, does that mean giving +5 points by default, no, that would be biased as well, what to do what to do what to do?!” The resultant evaluation might be too high, because of the positive anti-bias you are trying to apply, or it might be too low, because of the fear of such a positive anti-bias.
It’s sort of like performing a mechanical task, such as walking, or playing the piano, or hitting a baseball. If you stop to think about how you are going to do it, you will fumble. Once you become self conscious about it, you have put yourself in a pitfall.

But herein, I think, lies a possible key to success. In order to overcome bias, we must refrain from actively thinking about that bias, yet still evade it when it comes. The only way to do that is to actively train yourself, so that when the moment of truth arrives, you will do do it passively. Naturally.
This would be an obvious “given” in in a society where gender equality is the norm. In that case, your whole life you would observe unbiased decisions and non-discrimination. Living a regular life would be considered “training” in itself. But that’s not the case today (evidently), so as in all mechanical learning, we must train.

What I’m offering is: the brain works in mysterious ways. It’s capable of meta-thought, and that meta-thought disrupts it. However, it’s great at learning habits, and habits can be reinforced by training, i.e by feedback. With enough feedback, using some inner mechanisms-which-we-don’t-yet-understand, our brain can master all sorts of skills; some of which we have a very hard time replicating algorithmically and precisely. Why not use this ability to learn how to rate job applications with equality?
(Just some examples of our majestic abilities: face recognition, language acquisition, playing tennis, finding rhymes, and understanding sarcasm. You may object that the brain is hardwired explicitly to solve some of these; that’s ok, we still require a learning process to use them. Also, no need to go into details of different algorithms which do attempt to solve these problems).

This requires a training system. I propose the following:

Introducing www.ungenderbiasme.com! (patent pending; link not yet up). In this site you can methodologically train to remove gender biases when reviewing job applications and c.v’s. It’s quite simple: you log into the site and start reviewing both male and female applications (either randomly generated, or selected real ones). Like the study cited earlier, the same application forms are reviewed by many people around the world, with the only difference being the name and gender of the applicant. So we suppose that when you rank an application, 5000 people from around the globe will rank the same form, assuming the applicant is female; another 5000 will rank the form, but assuming the applicant is male.

Of course, as described above, during this ranking process you will be gender conscious. You will fret and wonder if you are unconsciously overranking or underranking. You will make mistakes. That’s ok though, as the whole purpose of the site is to let you know when you are doing it too much or too little. Once you submit your ranking, your scores are compared to the scores of everyone else in the world who reviewed the same application form as you.

There are several possibilities as to how to do this; here is one. Suppose you rank a female applicant. Your scores are then calibrated against the scores of the people who ranked the same female applicant. If you ranked significantly higher than say 95% of the others, you might just tend to be generous; if you ranked significantly lower  than most of the others, you might just have higher standards. This calibration is cumulative and takes into consideration all your previous rankings as well.
After the calibration, your scores are compared to those of the people who ranked the same male applicant as you did. Now you can see if you are gender biased! (at least compared to the rest of the population). After every form you review, you receive immediate feedback: “You scored this female candidate *way* higher than others scored the corresponding male candidate. Perhaps you overshot in your attempt to fix the world?”.
Effectively, the site provides an indicator as to how gender-biased a reviewer you are. By doing many such reviews (of course they are all short and fun to do), you learn to correct yourself by trial and error. Do this enough times, and you will no longer have to think about being unbiased; it will become part of your review process. Hopefully this will also trickle into the rest of your life, and not just the Job-Application-Checker side of you.

The naysayers will say that there are some difficulties here. You compare yourself to the rest of the world, but who said that the world knows what it’s doing? After all, if all was well, we wouldn’t need this site in the first place. Also, what happens when people start getting better? Does this model incorporate the fact that as time goes on, the world’s population will get better at unbiasing themselves? There should also be some stronger incentives to use this site than “you-will-be-a-morally-better-person-afterwards”, as many times people don’t seem to care about that (maybe it should be mandatory in order to get a professorship in all universities?).

But most importantly, does this scam even work? Who said that this gender bias, as a cognitive behavior, is similar to the mostly-mechanical skills I listed such as hitting a baseball? Who said that it can be trained this way? Even if it could, what guarantees that this specific method will work?

So the site isn’t up yet, and for good reason. Instead, I call out to you, fellow psychology and human behavior researchers! A clinical trial in the trainability of gender biases is yearning to be held. Surveying the harsh-to-be-a-woman environment of today, surely you have the incentive; now just find the money and time, and start performing world-bettering research!

(Alternatively: perhaps such studies already exist but I am ignorant of them (did not come up in a short google search). If so, show!)

4 thoughts on “Untraining your bias

  1. Or you could just remove the bias by having an insulated third party type up application forms and replace the applicant name with a serial number. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works for e.g. college applications in Portugal (from direct experience)

    1. I guess that would work, although it treats the symptoms rather than the causes. Also, in some cases, like interviews, there is no real way to dispose of the gender. Of course, the method I describe here isn’t immediately applicable to interviews, though I think it could be expanded in related ways. Anyway, one can hope that it reduces overall bias, not just application-checking.

  2. A very interesting concept. It might be worth submitting the idea to Assembly https://assembly.com/ . They are like a network of builders (developers, designers, managers, …) who collaborate on all sorts of projects, often open source and sharing revenue (if existing) based on contribution. Given that the problem of mistreating minorities is gaining attention in the software engineering circles as well (see e.g. https://modelviewculture.com/), you might be able to find quite a few interested individuals.

  3. An interesting solution to a tough problem, though IMO it requires too much work of the general public in order to be effective. Perhaps the reason people subconsciously prefer men for e.g. jobs is that the world is like that in the first place (like you said – there are more men in these jobs today), and our minds just follow the norm. Thus the only way to change our minds is to change the norm – slowly but surely. But perhaps the other way can work too, so why not try. 🙂

    P.S. Female ’emeritae’ 😉

Leave a Reply to Renan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s