How stereotypical environments


There was that panel Saturday morning.

One question Greta gave us was “does affirmative action work?”

I don’t think I started by saying it depends what we mean by “work” but I think I did indicate that that’s what I meant. Maybe I started with “Yes in the sense that” and went on from there. I think it does work in the (familiar) sense that if you always see X job or vocation or career full of all or mostly men (or white people or rich people and so on) then if you are not a man (or white etc) you will conclude, without deciding to conclude it, that you’re not supposed to be there.

This thought irritates the bejesus out of a lot of people. That’s sad for them but that doesn’t make it not true.

Ok, they perhaps think, but you can’t do anything about it without a lot of Professional Victimhood and Social Engineering and paying attention and all kinds of shit we don’t want to do. The hell with that. Don’t do anything, because.

 

That’s called laissez faire, and it’s libertarian crap. The way things are right now isn’t just magically the best way they could be, so yes we do too so get to tinker with them. No we don’t want to draft everyone until all the numbers come out even, but we do want to get rid of obstacles, including subtle ones that take digging and research to discover.

I talked about that a little, via the work of a University of Washington psychologist whose name I couldn’t remember. She is Sapna Cheryan, and she works on things like stereotypes and environments. I said her research had found that tiny cues in a lab can make a difference to whether or not women feel as if they’re supposed to be there – something as small as a plant. Debbie Goddard expressed surprise at that but Elisabeth Cornwell next to me muttered that it’s true. It’s very interesting stuff. A title:

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient
belonging: How stereotypical environments impact gender participation in
computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97,
1045-1060.

It’s optimistic research, really, because tiny inexpensive things can make a real difference.

So, we know this, so why pretend we don’t? Why pretend it’s all aready just everyone’s totally free preference? Maybe some day it will be, but we’re not there yet. (Actually it won’t be, because totally free would mean totally uninfluenced, and how the hell would that be possible?)

I enjoyed that panel. It was interesting and collegial and fun.

I’ll probably say more about it. I’m doing this slowly.

Comments

  1. melody says

    I was a bit disappointed that no one on that panel said there should be an equal amount of men and women at atheist and skeptic conferences. Someone suggested that as long as there was a woman on a panel and others said that there was some unknown number of representation of women at conferences that it was sufficient.

    It’s very easy to find qualified women speakers on almost any topic for atheist and skeptic conferences. As shown by the Women in Secularism conference, there is no reason for an atheist or humanist conference not to have an equal amount of qualified, entertaining women speakers. When choosing speakers each year, our problem is not trying to find speakers, it’s deciding which amazing women we are going to have to pass on.

  2. Guest says

    Science? You want to pay attention to science and evidence? Dogmatic feminist that you are! /sarcasm

  3. John T. says

    Affirmative action penalizes individuals who, largely, are at the start of their careers and thus were in no position to influence the discrimination.

    Affirmative action over the last four decades has cost Trillions, even by the most (fiscally) conservative estimates.

    Affirmative action is justified primarily because the minorities are disproportionately poor. They are every bit as poor now as they were 40 years ago, with the main difference being that they have less household wealth and are more dependent on government largess than ever.

    YES the problem continues to exist, but the current solution is both expensive and ineffective. We need to do something different.

  4. bad Jim says

    Having one woman on a panel, or in a department or a board room, helps only a little. Having at least two would probably help a lot. Everything changes when women are no longer an exception.

    Fairness in hiring probably would require an automatic preference to counteract the well-documented discrimination women face. Such a measure would probably be unacceptable and wouldn’t even be fair in all cases, but measures short of that which still significantly increased the presence of women might be enormously useful.

  5. great1american1satan says

    Dr. Cheryan’s work sounds similar to another sociologist I saw on a video while looking at Dawkins stuff, back when I cared to. I ended up watching her part with interest and skipping the RD. She was talking about how everyone is provably prejudiced in some way or another, but that there is hope because awareness moves those numbers in the right direction. I needed to hear that back then.

    And I think that’s the thing that’s the worst about the willfully ignorant social laissez-faire supporters. They’re dead afraid of being labelled as anything less than perfectly egalitarian in outlook, but if they’d cop to their prejudices, they’d be able to do something about them, and we’d all be cool with each other.

    Instead they stick their fingers in their ears and try to nyeh nyeh nyeh any correctable personal faults away. Because that always works.

  6. says

    So, we know this, so why pretend we don’t?

    Some people don’t know. Because they won’t stop talking long enough to hear it.

  7. says

    It’s this fucking libertarian mindset wherein, as long as it is done by private people via their own biases it’s just OK but as soon as somebody spells it out and administratively does something about it it is the end of the world, peace and democracy are coming to an end and it is a burning injustice.

  8. Nomit says

    “Some people don’t know. Because they won’t stop talking long enough to hear it.”

    To be fair, we don’t actually ‘know’ this stuff, we just strongly believe it and have some interesting supporting evidence. The trouble with the studies into stereotyping (and I haven’t see the ones specifically reffed here) is that they are not always, or even often, terribly convincing as science. We should add ‘what do we mean by affirmative action’ to Ophelia’s question too.

  9. Nomit says

    I think we would have proper data, that’s all. We have lots of suggestive anecdotal data, which isn’t nothing, and we have some experimental studies, which are interesting, but not solid scientific evidence, as far as I now. Most of the studies I have read have obvious problems in them. That’s true of most experimental sociology. It wouldn’t take much top persuade me, personally, but if I had to put money where my mouth was, it might be different, and that’s the rub.

  10. says

    Ah, yes. Reminds me of the guys in the lab when I was a grad student (the first time), who liked to sit at my desk and read the group copy of Playboy, and who sometimes left it open on my desk. It sounds like intentional hostility, but it actually wasn’t, and I understood that (too long a story to explain why). Still…talk about a signal that I was in the wrong clubhouse…

  11. Nomit says

    I remember reading one of those ‘how to spot a good lover’ Cosmo type articles in the 70s MEFoley, and one of the ‘good signs’ was that he should have copies of Playboy in his flat (meant he was relaxed and uninhibited about sex but not in a crude way). Bad signs included having Bach records (uptight!). So, likes porno, hates Bach? Snap him up girls! Strange how strange the recent past can be.

  12. hjhornbeck says

    Nomit @9:

    I think we would have proper data, that’s all. We have lots of suggestive anecdotal data, which isn’t nothing, and we have some experimental studies, which are interesting, but not solid scientific evidence, as far as I now.

    A Google Scholar search for stereotype threat comes up with 124,000 references. I just stumbled on this one by accident:

    Managing diversity in organizations requires creating an environment where all employees can succeed. This paper explains how understanding “stereotype threat”—the fear of being judged according to a negative stereotype— can help managers create positive environments for diverse employees. While stereotype threat has received a great deal of academic research attention, the issue is usually framed in the organizational literature as a problem affecting performance on tests used for admission and selection decisions. Further, articles discussing stereotype threat usually report the results of experimental studies and are targeted to an academic audience. We summarize 12 years of research findings on stereotype threat, address its commonplace occurrence in the workplace, and consider how interventions effective in laboratory settings for reducing stereotype threat might be implemented by managers in organizational contexts. We end the paper with a discussion of how attention to stereotype threat can improve the management of diversity in organizations.
    Roberson, Loriann, and Carol T. Kulik. “Stereotype threat at work.” The Academy of Management Perspectives 21.2 (2007): 24-40.

  13. Nomit says

    hjhornbeck, I do realise that there is a lot of work done in this area, and I am not an expert on the literature, but the studies I have read have not been quite convincing and so I am still dubious about the idea of ‘stereotype threat’. That doesn’t mean I reject it out of hand. A big part of the problem is that the experiments tend to be run from psychology depts which often have, to say the least, rather loose standards of experimental design. Economics depts can be even worse!

  14. ildi says

    A big part of the problem is that the experiments tend to be run from psychology depts which often have, to say the least, rather loose standards of experimental design.

    Ah, yes, the old “social science isn’t really science” canard.

  15. hjhornbeck says

    Nomit @16:

    I do realise that there is a lot of work done in this area, and I am not an expert on the literature, but the studies I have read have not been quite convincing and so I am still dubious about the idea of ‘stereotype threat’.

    I’d think that after 124,000 data points and 18 years of research, we’d have a good idea of how real the effect is. Perhaps you should trust the interpretations of the experts on the literature,* rather than your own?

    * Which I am not , in case you were wondering.

  16. Pen says

    I think there may be a lot of variation between individuals on this that we don’t understand yet. I say that because I’m currently bringing up a daughter who is much more sensitive to those environmental cues than I ever was or will be. I could be totally oblivious to being in an all-male environment and a plant would mean nothing to me. In books and media I always related to male of female characters on any basis other than gender. My daughter on the other hand noticed that there were more male protagonists than females in her maths book. I had to count to check she was right (60/40). She used to ask me to reverse the genders of male figures in story books so she could identify with them. Fortunately, she already has a grounding in feminism.

  17. Therrin says

    I’m partial to the blind audition example, and how it has changed orchestra memberships. The same principles apply to Affirmative Action in a world where interviews for jobs are never anonymous.

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