Friday, June 15, 2012

Gender Bias

My department is blissfully free of bias, as I have been informed in recent days by many of its members. The fact that I think it’s almost cute how proud they are of themselves tells you how much I like most of my colleagues.

We can all count that there is one woman out of 25 tenured faculty members in our department, so we definitely recognize that we have a bad case of gender disparity. Most of us think it's a problem. But that's about the extent of our collective sophistication on the subject.

 What we need is a good map and an experienced guide to help us think through why it is like it is, point us in the right direction for solutions, and find a way that we can discuss these issues without feeling as if we are walking on eggshells with each other (i.e. me), and implement solutions.   

 Lack of diversity/gender discrepancy is a big problem, not only in academic physical sciences & engineering, but also at the tops of corporations, law firms, etc. What are the origins of gender discrepancies? is a big unsolved question because the reasons are complicated and multivariate and involve people. For example, three of the many explanations for gender discrepancies that have been floating around recently include:

            Gender differences in statistical behavior at the extremes (A "bell-curve"-type argument that I think was actually the core of Larry Summers "intrinsic aptitude" argument)

Here’s one of my question as a scientist:
Are these (and the many other) factors competing hypotheses for an issue that likely has a single, overriding cause (Occam’s Razor)? Or do many factors come together in complex ways that result in a single outcome of inequity?

And here's my question as an engineer:
What do we do about it?

One of our goals as members of a department and university is to make decisions based on data and not bias. So I think it is worthwhile to check out some of the research done on bias in decision making. The goal isn’t to purge ourselves of our schemas, or to claim that bias doesn’t exist. Ideally, some of us will occasionally succeed in recognizing our own biases-in-action, and either self-correct or even call it out for the rest of us to acknowledge and/or discuss. I think it’s worth facing the idea squarely—as trained critical thinkers—especially if it results in a better and more diverse department/ university.
Here are some more resources:

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