Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bias Surprise

Our educational institutions oppose discrimination, but are they unbiased?
A group of researchers ran this interesting field experiment. 

As supposed students, they emailed 6,500 professors at 250 top schools. They wrote saying, I really admire your work. Would you have some time to meet? 

The messages to the faculty were all identical, but the names of the students were all different.  Names like Brad Anderson. Meredith Roberts. Lamar Washington. LaToya Brown. Juanita Martinez. Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen.   Obvious gender and ethnic name differences, these were the only variants in the otherwise identical correspondence.

A review of the results is interesting.  For positive responses from professors in the business field, white male identities were at the top with a 25 percentage point gap above female and ethnic minority identities.  The same trend was visible for each academic discipline.  

Keep in mind, these are the top-of-their-field professors at the most respected institutions where equality and diversity are strongly supported and vigorously pursued.  Such bias is perhaps more pronounced in the general population. 

Numerous inquiries, both rigorously scientific and anecdotal/informal, show the same perhaps subconscious bias in culture, even among liberals.


One recent recounting from the business world has two co-workers, one male and one female, swap names on their email correspondence with customers to see if it makes a difference.  The degree of respect and agreement given the male signature was extraordinarily higher than that granted the female.  To the supposed female service provider, customer correspondence was commonly condescending, distrustful, and disrespectful, the visible opposite of what was the norm for the male.  The customer behavior was tied specifically to the male or female signature even when they switched back and forth between the two workers.

Many women in the business world have changed their official signature to just initials for first and middle name.  Why might that be? 

Examples of such deeply embedded bias are visible in every venue, and to a greater or lesser degree, we're all participants.  How do we minimize the harm done?
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Anthropologist Dan Grunspan was studying the habits of undergraduates when he noticed an unexpected trend:  male students assumed their male classmates knew more than female students - even if the women earned better grades.

Grunspan and his colleagues at the University of Washington and elsewhere decided to quantify the degree of this gender bias in the classroom.


After surveying roughly 1,700 students, they found male students consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates.

Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study published in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A's, they’d receive equal applause from female students - but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.

From the journal:  "Female college students are more likely to abandon studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines than their male classmates, and new research from the University of Washington suggests that their male peers may play a key role in undermining their confidence. ...  Researchers estimate that gender bias among male students was 19 times stronger than among females."
“Something under the conscious is going on,” Grunspan said. “For 18 years, these [young men] have been socialized to have this bias.”
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We enslaved, we waged wars, we oppressed.  When we identified the injustice, we labored to end it all.  After decades of progress in law, the bias persists.

Racial, ethnic, and gender biases are deeply rooted issues that are generally unaddressed in current equality discussions.  We know the bias exists, but our understanding of why is incomplete.  Is it ignorance or perhaps a remnant of some natural (animal) trait that we as humans hope to rise above?  Is it deliberate?  Or a failure of conscience?  

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