The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality

People who consider themselves fully rational individuals are ignorant about basic psychology and their own minds.

It is easy for white men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to perceive themselves as more rational than other groups, because our society associates rationality with whites, men, and STEM professionals. When white men in STEM fields believe in this stereotype, they might assume that bias is more common in non-white people, women, and people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. After all, these other groups seem to want to discuss bias more often, and unexamined associative “reasoning” would link bias to those who bring up the topic of bias. Under logical scrutiny, however, it does not follow that the act of thinking about bias makes one more biased.

Green Red Blue
Purple Blue Purple


Blue Purple Red
Green Purple Green


the Stroop effect refers to the fact that naming the color of the first set of words is easier and quicker than the second.

A basic tenet of contemporary psychology is that mental activity can be unconscious. Unconscious simply refers to any mental activity that is “not conscious”, and it is not equivalent to the unscientific New Age concept of the Subconscious. A good example of unconscious mental activity interfering with conscious intentions is the Stroop effect (right). If you try to name the colours of the colour words aloud, the first set of colours will be easier to name than the second set of colours, because you unconsciously read the words. This means that you do not have full control over your thoughts and behaviour, and your willpower or logical reasoning cannot overcome the unconscious cultural bias of being able to read in English. Of course, there are other unconscious cultural biases aside from English literacy bias.

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Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science.

In How the sex bias prevails (The Age), Shankar Vedantam describes a randomized, controlled psychology experiment that proves the existence of unconscious sexism in the laboratory:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

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White people lack empathy for brown people, brain research shows.

New research from the University of Toronto-Scarborough shows that white people’s mirror-neuron-system fires much less, if at all, when they watch people of colour performing motor tasks, and I’m not at all surprised. For years, I just assumed that this was true, and that someone just had to do a study to prove it.

After the United States invaded Iraq and massacred tens of thousands of Iraqis, worldwide terrorist recruitment skyrocketed, as well as terrorist attacks targetting the U.S. and coalition countries. Terrorist leaders cited the Iraq invasion and the deaths of Iraqis as the reason for the attacks. However, White Americans did not buy it, believing it to be a smokescreen for some other reason. It must be Islam, they reasoned, as they grasped at straws.

I then realized that the vast majority of White Americans could not empathize with brown people at a very basic level. For most White Americans, the death and violence of thousands of brown bodies was just part of some abstract ethical argument to position oneself as morally superior to the United States. For most White Americans, brown people dying just meant flickers on the television screen about something happening far away. They didn’t feel the overwhelming anger and sadness they would normally feel when someone they know dies without reason. They couldn’t see the full reality of what death means, when the people who die are brown.

I have seen white people complain online that they cannot see the facial expressions of (East) Asian faces. For many white people, East Asians are like emotionless robots who are efficient at machine-like things like number crunching. Some white people argue that while East Asians may be able to play musical instruments beautifully, they play music without soul.

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People perceive upper-middle class white men to be smarter than they are.

In On Being Good at Seeming Smart, Eric Schwitzgebel writes (bold emphasis mine):

[A]fter a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student’s question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn’t think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average — neither particularly good nor particularly bad — but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.

Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as “seeming smart”. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. […]

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Environmental and social barriers restrict women in science, tech, engineering, and math.

Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PDF) is a new, publicly-accessible research report by AAUW that “presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation and progress in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

The report is quite comprehensive, and summarizes and integrates studies from different research areas. At the end of each chapter are practical recommendations based on research findings. Here is a list of the detailed chapters: Chapter 1: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; Chapter 2: Beliefs about Intelligence; Chapter 3: Stereotypes; Chapter 4: Self-Assessment; Chapter 5: Spatial Skills; Chapter 6: The College Student Experience; Chapter 7: University and College Faculty; Chapter 8: Implicit Bias; Chapter 9: Workplace Bias; Chapter 10: Recommendations.

Commentary in the blogosphere:

Masking the gender and race of job applicants increases diversity in hiring.

Eric Ries writes about his experience in achieving diversity in hiring by masking identifying information from the résumés (emphasis mine):

Now, whenever I screen resumes, I ask the recruiter to black out any demographic information from the resume itself: name, age, gender, country of origin. The first time I did this experiment, I felt a strange feeling of vertigo while reading the resume. “Who is this guy?” I had a hard time forming a visual image, which made it harder to try and compare each candidate to the successful people I’d worked with in the past. It was an uncomfortable feeling, which instantly revealed just how much I’d been relying on surface qualities when screening resumes before – even when I thought I was being 100% meritocratic. And, much to my surprise (and embarrassment), the kinds of people I started phone-screening changed immediately.

And yet, when I suggest this practice to hiring managers and recruiters alike, they rarely do it. Hiring managers say, “the recruiter would never go for it” while recruiters say, “the hiring manager won’t accept it.” What I think we’re really saying is: “I don’t want to know if I am biased.” That’s understandable – it’s embarrassing! Even if our biases are only implicit and not consciously held, the systems we build can still contain bias. When we change a hiring policy, especially if we do it in a visible way, we reap two benefits. We actually improve our hiring process and also signal our commitment to meritocracy.

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Dear IT industry: “Meritocracy” does not mean what you think it means.

IT culture is so ignorant about how society works that what would be satire in other contexts is actually how most IT people think. IT people in general are not exactly experts on how people and society work, yet too many individuals in IT like to make bold, confident, and unsupported claims about meritocracy.

Vivek Wadhwa of TechCrunch writes:

Is the Valley deliberately keeping these groups out? I don’t think so. Silicon Valley is, without doubt, a meritocracy. In this land, only the fittest survive. That is exactly the way it should be. For the Valley’s innovation system to achieve peak performance, new technologies need to constantly obsolete the old, and the world’s best techies need to keep making the Valley’s top guns compete for their jobs. There is no room for government mandated affirmative action, and our tech companies shouldn’t have to apologize for hiring the people they need. But at the same time, without realizing it, the Valley may be excluding a significant part of the American population that could be making it even more competitive. False stereotypes may be getting in the way of greater innovation and prosperity.

“Meritocracy” means “a society or social system in which people get status or rewards because of what they achieve”. If some people get status and rewards partly because they are white and male, then the system is not a meritocracy. Such a system would have a racial and gender bias, just like every other industry.

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