A scientific approach to diversity promotion

Beta at feministphilosophers has linked to some useful information for us to think about today: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6171/615.summaryinterventions/. I wish more discussions about promoting diversity could follow these lines!

The article, published in Science on Friday, surveys the field of research on the success rates of various diversity intervention programs. Though the research is not directed at philosophy in particular, it seems fair to assume that similar considerations will apply.

Some key points:

  • The research suggests that academic scientists have important implicit biases that work against women and minorities. (As other research has shown, there has been a significant reduction in explicit biases over the past few decades: it’s the implicit biases that have lagged behind. Hence, initiatives aimed at causing academics to see, assert and believe anti-discriminatory and pro-diversity statements will not solve the problem, though it may lead many to falsely believe they are helping to solve the problem).

  • The science of effective diversity promotion is in its infancy. To date, there have been no randomized control trials measuring possible changes in scientists’ behavior in the wake of diversity training. The nearest thing has been a randomized control trial measuring self-reported intentions rather than behavior changes, and this study was done using undergraduate psychology students rather than academics.

  • Nonetheless, some results from recent non-RCT (randomized control trial) studies appear to show that ‘diversity interventions’ along certain lines, including one interactive semester-long course, have genuine and lasting effects on participants’ implicit biases and behaviors.

  • However, many attempts to promote diversity are not only ineffective but “may paradoxically worsen bias and fail to improve diversity.” More specifically, “[p]rograms appear to be particularly counterproductive when they place pressure or blame on attendees, rather than presenting diversity as a shared community challenge and opportunity. A common approach urges participants to recognize their own personal culpability in perpetuating discrimination and to take corrective action by complying with societal egalitarian norms. This approach leads to backlash when its central message is perceived as accusatory, which diminishes participants’ internal motivations to be nonprejudiced and induces higher levels of bias. Unintended outcomes highlight the importance of testing interventions before widespread implementation and underscore the need for an evidence-based framework of intervention elements and outcomes.”  (p.616).

In philosophy, there are several diversity-promoting initiatives underway at many different levels. How effective will these be? We don’t yet have enough solid research to be nearly as confident as many promoters andcritics of these initiatives would like us to believe, but these findings are certainly suggestive about what will work and what might actually make the problem worse.

It strikes me reading over this that those of us who aim at increased diversity might usefully be distinguished according to our motivations.

On the one hand, there are those who aim most of all at, well, increasing diversity. Certain things we might do will further that end, and certain others might frustrate it. Which is which might not be intuitively obvious, but we must do our research and use it to help us bring about favorable consequences.

And on the other hand, we have those for whom involvement in diversity-promotion is a way of moralizing: of identifying, rebuking and distancing themselves from evildoers; of forging an identity with others on the morally right side by uniting themselves under -isms and policing their ranks and the periphery for norm-violations; and so on.

I suspect that error about our own motivations on this issue is, as so often, widespread.

5 thoughts on “A scientific approach to diversity promotion

  1. Hello. I after looking at the author’s 2012 study about male and female faculty implicit bias based on sex (toward potential lab managers), I do have a question. In order to argue that this is indeed subtle discrimination, the author would need to demonstrate that male and female lab managers perform differently. It could be the case that faculty members are basing their ratings not on gender stereotypes but on experience. It could be the case that, in their experience, hiring a male lab manager had better outcomes. Note that the disciplines are not specified, making interpretation difficult.

    Please remember that I merely pointing an alternative hypothesis and not taking a strong position. But, based on a single study, the author claims that there is an established cultural bias and that this bias need remediation.

    • I’ve wondered variations of this question as well. I don’t think an answer would do much for us, but maybe I’m wrong.

      Consider what we could conclude from a study purporting to show that women generally underperform in some task as compared with men. Given the manifold ways that men and women are differently gendered by their fellows, even from before birth, there would be so much noise in any result seeming to show that women comparatively underperform that any difference in performance could always, without a much better grip than we currently have on the other variables in play, be explained by some other factor.

      If it were then found that groups against which a bias worked were groups whose members tended to underperform as compared to other groups, this would suggest to some that the systemic conditions of (let’s just have out with it) patriarchal oppression were ultimately to blame, not any kind of gender essentialism in women. Putting aside the narrative, and the confusion of a grammatical question (the semantics of generics) with a metaphysical one (essentialism), something like that response would have to be correct (please call me out if I’m missing something). And witness the advances that women have made in school with the intervention of feminist education and pedagogy. I would be very surprised if there were good reason to think men and women systematically perform at different proficiencies across the professions. Still, no one can doubt that women, generally, don’t make the best laborers (though I’ve known some kick-ass women landscapers), while we’d all be fucked if men were expected to breastfeed. The question is whether there’s a coherent position between exclusively biological sexual dimorphism and ‘gender essentialism’ of the sort to be rejected.

      • Sorry, it would be better to put the final question in terms of a contrast between exclusively _physiological_ sexual dimorphism and so-called ‘gender essentialism’ rather than making the contrast hang on biology. I mean to allow that there might be biological differences in, e.g., how men and women tend to engage cognitively with a subject matter, or act and react in relation to other people, without these differences being read off the physique and function of, e.g., muscle mass and mammary glands. Surely that sort of difference would be biological (presumably buried in our central nervous systems), though I don’t think it’s physiological in any but an extended sense. Perhaps some other term would be better. At any rate, I hope the contrast is clear.

  2. Among the things you are not taking into account here — and which never seems to be taken into account in these explanations — is the countervailing effect of highly aggressive, explicit bias in favor of women in academic philosophy in the form of Affirmative Action.

    Let’s grant that women are subject to some degree of implicit bias. Why should we not believe that that effect is not fully compensated for, if not over-compensated for, by the current level of Affirmative Action, which has become almost desperate in its attempt to correct for numbers that people find embarrassing?

    It’s of course impossible to gauge with great precision how powerful the effect of Affirmative Action might be in this context. But it is certainly measurable in part at the level of undergraduate and graduate admissions, based on such metrics as the SAT, GPA, and GREs. When it comes to minority students, that gap is often a full standard deviation or more. Even with women in certain STEM colleges and programs (and indeed in elite law schools) there appears to be a significant gap in GRE, GMAT, or LSAT scores, a gap that gets more pronounced as one goes up the bell curve. (While this often gets explained as a consequence of so-called stereotype threat, why does stereotype threat hit almost exclusively on standardized tests, and not GPA, and why does it hit at the very upper end of the curves, but not nearly so much, if at all, beneath that upper end?) While all parties involved, including both the testing services and the schools, go to great lengths to suppress all evidence of this gap, it has leaked out in one fashion or another over the years, and is generally well known by those involved in such decisions.

    The point here is that on things we can measure, such as standardized test results, Affirmative Action has clearly skewed the results in favor of women. But if people in decision making positions can, in their pursuit of greater numbers of women, diminish the importance of clearly measurable features such as testing results, how can we believe that in cases in which there do not exist clear objective measures, the same sort of positive bias would not arise? Indeed, wouldn’t we expect it to be more pronounced, since there is little to act as a drag on that bias, as is the case when objective measures exist?

    Given that the bias in favor of women due to Affirmative Action appears to be quite sizable, why believe that it does not fully overcome any subtle, implicit bias against women?

    And if implicit bias is already fully overcome — and, arguably, more than overcome — then why should we believe that the number of women in philosophy is not already at an entirely fair level?

Comments are closed.