Our Biased View of Bias

Shaming those we think biassed doesn't solve anything.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Are we ever able to answer questions about bias fairly?  I have been brooding over this question for some time, partly through my research on the micro judgments we make throughout our day, but also through two recent experiences.  

The first was in my academic life. In a session designed to showcase successful women to both students and academics, the host academic said, “Well, of course, women are always judged by what they look like, good or bad.”

There was general assent among the audience, expressed in a ripple of amusement, and convivial exchanges of scoffs and nods. I felt a deep unease, for I knew, and was sure that on some level everyone in the room knew, this simply isn’t true.

Everyone in the lecture hall, student or professor, had witnessed or experienced cases where women were judged on the basis of a wide range of qualities. In that audience, most of the women, most of the time, are not assessed on “how they look”–assuming that, in such a context, “how they look” refers to attractiveness, sexiness or any kind of physical appeal. Most of those present had genuine professional relationships with male and female colleagues, who judged them on the value of their research, their teaching and their ability to obtain research funds. In fact, any sign that they are “judged by what they look like” stands out and raises an alarm of anger and opprobrium not only in the victim but also in friends and colleagues. There are two dynamic features–the inciting misogynistic bias and the loud resonance of resistance. Focusing only on the former is a missed opportunity to highlight widely available support within the same culture we are condemning.  

What is going on as so many counterexamples drop off the radar when people hear, “Women are always judged by how they look?"

The answer is that counter-examples disappear via what psychologists call the confirmation bias. This bias has been flagged as “probably the most pervasive and damaging bias of [biases]."  It summons up examples that confirm a statement and wipes out memories of all counterexamples. Generalizations that chime, however inexactly, with our beliefs (that, for example, women are not always treated fairly and strictly on the basis of their achievements) prime us to focus on confirmatory evidence, only. I know from experience that any dissent can be met with hostility. The response is likely to be: “How can you say this generalization is untrue when I can think of many cases in which it is true?” This is one awful effect of a few cases of bias: we forget it is not universal. 

The second experience will be familiar as a current talking point about bias: It is that of witnessing, along with millions of others, Serena Williams’ protest at the umpire's judgment and the penalties imposed on her during the US Open final. The brilliant Rebecca Traister offers a persuasive analysis of a double standard that is particularly salient when a black woman tells a man he is wrong. Traister's piece resonates with much truth. It reveals layers of bias that women have experienced as their anger has been silenced and, if expressed, twisted into some "proof" of weakness. But I wonder whether it reveals the full truth of this event. If we explore a double standard then we also have to ask, “What would we have said if Serena Williams were the umpire and a male tennis champion spoke to her that way?" Would we not have seen bias against women then, too? Don't we see bias whenever we see something we don't like?

These are not simple questions, nor are they rhetorical ones. Serena Williams was very angry but her language was not the wild abusive language we have heard from some male tennis players—"stupid", "bum"; her words ("liar", "thief") were strictly on point, not globally abusive. And it is easy to empathize with her sense of unfairness, which was also fueled by the intense work of a champion game and frustration at not doing as well as she might.  But when I imagine the reverse situation–a male player shouting at a female umpire—I also imagine the ensuing furore and accusation of bias because a man was shouting at a woman and angrily challenging her judgment.  

Here we see one of the most damaging features of bias:  the speed with which we see it, and the conviction of our righteous indignation. What we do not see is the bias of our own lens. One problem is that we fear the many ways unconscious bias worms its way into our minds, and shaming others for bias assures us that we have our own biases under control.  When we cast shame, the response will be defensive and divisions will become more entrenched.

To contain bias' terrible legacy of suspicion and divisiveness we need a new approach, one that admits bias is a shared problem.  In that way, we explore what's clean and what's muddy in our common culture, rather than condemn those whose actions are suspect.  In some cases, this model will be over-generous; after all, some people are bigots. But this model is the only one that will allow us to move forward.

This piece draws on my discussion of gender bias and the need for nuance in academia.