How to completely miss the point

The Danish government party, Socialdemokratiet/The Social Democrats, have made a video which is supposed to show that they support all children.

You don’t have to be able to speak English to get the gist of what the video is about. It is based on the Privilege walk exercise, which is based on Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and has is meant to illustrate how privilege will affect people.

Now, look at the video from the Social Democrats, and you’ll probably notice straight away that they have completely missed the point of the exercise. The group of children in the video is extremely homogeneous, and there are none with different ethnical backgrounds or with visible handicaps.

Yes, the video ends up with great differences between the children, but the big distance this is only possible because they have changed the questions in order to remove any referring to white and able bodied privileges, and instead focusing on only those that can affect this particular group of children. It is understandable why they have done this, but it goes against the whole concept for the exercise.

I cannot even begin to understand why anyone would do this particular exercise without any representations for the groups that faces systematic discrimination in the Danish society. I can only think that this was done deliberately to not draw attention to the plight of those groups, and instead focuses on more traditionally social democratic priorities – e.g. class and education. This is, unfortunately, not surprising, given how the Danish Social Democrats has become more and more anti-immigrant, in order to win voters back from the xenophobic Danish Peoples’ Party.

The importance of diversity

When diversity, or rather the lack of diversity, is brought up in an article, discussion, talk, or some other context, there always seem to be some people who react by questioning the importance of diversity, saying something along the lines of:

Why is diversity so important? We should hire/select people based on merits, not based on their gender/race/other grouping.

That’s not an actual quote, but I have heard variations of it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

What this argument does, is attacking the whole premise of the problem we are trying to address. They don’t necessarily deny that there is a lack of diversity, but they will usually claim that the lack of diversity is by choice by the people left out, and that it isn’t a problem, since diversity isn’t important, merit is.

Given the number of times I have come across this argument, I thought it might be time to write an article that addresses why diversity is important.

There are a few major reasons, which I think can be summed up as:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

Let’s take them one by one.

Fairness

There is a fundamentally lack of fairness if a group of people are excluded from certain positions. There are certainly special cases where it can be argued that it makes sense to exclude certain groups of people (e.g. firefighters cannot be paraplegic), but at a general level, this doesn’t apply.

The counter argument against fairness is usually a claim of meritocracy, but the math simply doesn’t hold up for such claims. Eric Ries does a good job at addressing this at this 2011 Techcrunch article, which I definitely think is worth reading. It focuses on the startup environment, but the arguments are as valid in all other fields.

In the article, Eric Ries also links to a blogpost he wrote in 2010, Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business), where he pretty much sums up why the claim of meritocracy is directly disproven by the lack of diversity:

Diversity is the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. As entrepreneurs, more than any other industry, we’re in the meritocracy business. The companies that make decisions based on merit, rather than title, politics, or hierarchy execute faster and learn faster than their competitors. For startups (and other innovators), that’s a decisive advantage.

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

I think that is a pretty good argument. A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

This is, unless one believes that there is some kind of gender-specific or genetic component to merit. Such a belief is, of course, completely unproven, and flies against all research, that shows that e.g. gender-specific differences are minor, at best.

So, all in all, a lack of diversity, shows a lack of fairness, where people are evaluated on their merits, and not on some other, irrelevant factor.

Reducing biases

It is well documented that there are significant evaluation and hiring biases at play when a person is being considered for hiring or promoting.

E.g. it is well documented that men tend to have a bias towards evaluating men better than women, and that men are considered better for leadership positions (see e.g. Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” (pdf)). That there is a bias against hiring homosexuals (pdf), and that perceived race has a major impact on whether you are taken into consideration for a job (USA study, Swedish study (pdf)).

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions. Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Better performance

Again, this follows somewhat naturally from the idea that diversity is symptom of a true meritocracy.

As I already said in the reducing biases section, diversity helps solve problems (there is even a paper out there proving this mathematically), and there is clear evidence that companies with a diverse leadership perform better financially. As McKinsey & Company writes in the introduction to their Diversity Matters paper

The analysis found a statistically significant relationship between a more diverse leadership and better financial
performance. The companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial
returns that were above their national industry median. Companies in the top quartile of racial/ethnic diversity
were 30 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median. Companies in the
bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity/race were statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial
returns than the average companies in the dataset (that is, they were not just not leading, they were lagging). The
results varied by country and industry. Companies with 10 percent higher gender and ethnic/racial diversity on
management teams and boards in the US, for instance, had EBIT that was 1.1 percent higher; in the UK, companies
with the same diversity level had EBIT that was 5.8 percent higher. Moreover, the unequal performance across
companies in the same industry and same country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator that shifts
market share towards more diverse companies.
Diversity matters because we increasingly live in a global world that has become deeply interconnected. It should
come as no surprise that more diverse companies and institutions are achieving better performance. Most
organisations, including McKinsey, have work to do in taking full advantage of the opportunity that a more diverse
leadership team represents, and, in particular, more work to do on the talent pipeline: attracting, developing,
mentoring, sponsoring, and retaining the next generations of global leaders at all levels of the organisation. But
given the increasing returns that diversity is expected to bring, it is better to invest now, as winners will pull further
ahead and laggards will fall further behind.

In order to get a diverse leadership, the workforce as a whole needs to be diverse, otherwise you have no recruitment base.

In conclusion

When you are a white cis male heterosexual it is easy to ignore the lack of diversity in society, and claim that your advantage is based upon a meritocracy, but there are plenty of studies that demonstrates that there are a lot of biases against anyone not falling within that very narrow group, which clearly demolishes the idea of a meritocracy. There are also plenty of experiments that shows that attempts to counter the biases, will result in a greater diversity (see e.g. the famous idea of blind auditioning of orchestra members), which clearly demonstrates that diversity would be a much better measure of a true meritocracy.

A clear sign of this being the case, is the fact that companies with a diverse leadership do better financially.

 

Gender bias when evaluating people

This is a repost of a blogpost from February 18, 2016 at my old blog.

Wonkblog reports on a new study on gendered bias: The remarkably different answers men and women give when asked who’s the smartest in the class

Anthropologist Dan Grunspan was studying the habits of undergraduates when he noticed a persistent trend: Male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students — even if the young women earned better grades.

“The pattern just screamed at me,” he said.

So, 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 across three biology courses, they found young men 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 this month 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.

It is a pretty good article, and well worth the read – as is the actual paper in PLOS One

Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms

Women who start college in one of the natural or physical sciences leave in greater proportions than their male peers. The reasons for this difference are complex, and one possible contributing factor is the social environment women experience in the classroom. Using social network analysis, we explore how gender influences the confidence that college-level biology students have in each other’s mastery of biology. Results reveal that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content. This effect increases as the term progresses, and persists even after controlling for class performance and outspokenness. The bias in nominations is specifically due to males over-nominating their male peers relative to their performance. The over-nomination of male peers is commensurate with an overestimation of male grades by 0.57 points on a 4 point grade scale, indicating a strong male bias among males when assessing their classmates. Females, in contrast, nominated equitably based on student performance rather than gender, suggesting they lacked gender biases in filling out these surveys. These trends persist across eleven surveys taken in three different iterations of the same Biology course. In every class, the most renowned students are always male. This favoring of males by peers could influence student self-confidence, and thus persistence in this STEM discipline.

The paper doesn’t really tell anything new – it is well documented that there is a gender-bias against women when evaluating performance and skills, especially in science – see e.g. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

Or How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science

 Women outnumber men in undergraduate enrollments, but they are much less likely than men to major in mathematics or science or to choose a profession in these fields. This outcome often is attributed to the effects of negative sex-based stereotypes. We studied the effect of such stereotypes in an experimental market, where subjects were hired to perform an arithmetic task that, on average, both genders perform equally well. We find that without any information other than a candidate’s appearance (which makes sex clear), both male and female subjects are twice more likely to hire a man than a woman. The discrimination survives if performance on the arithmetic task is self-reported, because men tend to boast about their performance, whereas women generally underreport it. The discrimination is reduced, but not eliminated, by providing full information about previous performance on the task. By using the Implicit Association Test, we show that implicit stereotypes are responsible for the initial average bias in sex-related beliefs and for a bias in updating expectations when performance information is self-reported. That is, employers biased against women are less likely to take into account the fact that men, on average, boast more than women about their future performance, leading to suboptimal hiring choices that remain biased in favor of men.

What I find interesting with the newest study, however, is that it seems like it mostly affects men, while women tend to be better at giving a correct evaluation of the skills of their peers.

If this tendency continues after leaving the classroom (and other studies strongly indicate that this is so), this means that men are more likely to hire less qualified men than the more qualified women, while believing that they are hiring the most qualified person.

Women on the other hand, is more likely to hire the most qualified person, regardless of gender.

When people argue against quotas and other measures to create a level playing field on the job market, they usually argue that the most qualified person should be hired to a given job – well, this study clearly shows that in order for this to happen, there has to be more women involved in the hiring, since otherwise the less qualified men will get hired.

In other words, in order for people to really get hired on the basis of their merits, we have to break the cycle of hiring based on biases.

So, maybe quotas and other measures are the real way of ensuring people getting hired on the basis of their merit?