Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I'll Go First

Earlier this year, I participated in a workshop about diversity in hiring and retention, with all the usual discussion of implicit bias and so on and so forth. It was very well done and I appreciated the reminders and advice.

At one point in the workshop, we were divided into small groups to discuss relevant topics. My group consisted of 4 women and 1 man (all white). Although I was the only scientist in the group, it turned out that 3 of the 4 women were from fields in which women are underrepresented.

For our small-group discussions, we were told to share experiences in which we had felt that gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other characteristic had affected how people had treated us in a professional situation. When one of the women in my group started to speak, the man interrupted her and said "I'll go first."

I laughed and got a strange look from him. I thought he was being funny and had jumped in like that to be deliberately stereotypically aggressive. He was not joking. He really wanted to go first. He had seriously interrupted the woman who started to speak because he had something really important to say (first).

His example involved living in another country years ago and having someone say something in a meeting about Americans not understanding some aspect of higher education administration in that other country. This hurt him. He felt stereotyped, and he felt that the comment was directed at him even if it was made in an apparently general way.

The stories the women told were mostly about being ignored, silenced, disrespected, overlooked, and patronized in very personal ways that in some cases affected their careers. The man nodded and said he understood, he had felt that same way when he was insulted that time years ago.

I admit that I thought his example was stupid and I thought that I would not like to be in his department. Not to be competitive or anything, but he came up with one ancient example in which his administrative prowess had been obliquely called into question. The women each had multiple recent experiences in which they had been the specific, personal target of some very unpleasant behavior by colleagues or administrators.

But then I wondered: perhaps, for the purposes of being alert to bias, the important thing is that this man believes that he had the experience of being stereotyped and feels empathy as a result? I am not advocating being disrespected as a personal growth experience for all, but I wondered if I was being too hard on him in dismissing his example as absurd.

Then I remembered that he had interrupted and insisted on going first, and I gave up on my wonderings. Perhaps my failure to respect his example shows the limitations of my empathy. And perhaps I have a lot more work to do to overcome my own biases (despite attending numerous workshops).

I left the workshop thinking: how can any of us possibly do the right thing (in the hiring process) if we are all riddled with biases, despite good intentions? Is our best hope to have large and diverse hiring committees comprised of people whose biases, implicit and overt, will mostly cancel each other out?

42 comments:

Mark said...

I think the best we can do on a day-to-day basis is to be aware that, however good our intentions, we are riddled with biases and bad behaviors, and to be watchful for those biases and behaviors in ourselves. The man in your group may feel empathy as a result of his experience, but it doesn't sound like it results in very mindful behavior on his part. (His lack of understanding of your laughter proves that much more than the original interruption.) Empathy alone wins him no points.

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of this great comic:
http://www.robot-hugs.com/but-men/

Anonymous said...

Maybe he felt pressured to emphasize his ancient experience to show that (even as a white man) he wasn't immune to prejudice. I'm sure it can feel uncomfortable to be in a group with all women talking about being disrespected and dismissed (mainly by men) and he probably didn't want to be the token "man" in that scenario.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I give a fair number of these workshops/presentations, and have for many years. Mostly the sex ratio is about 4:1 in favor of women, but when it is time for questions, virtually all of the men will speak. It's not that they don't have something to contribute, but the disparity is striking. And the tendency hasn't changed at all over the years.

Anonymous said...

Call me cynical, but I suspect this guy's experience makes him less empathetic. What's the big deal? Everyone is discriminated against! Why have a workshop on diversity when white men are discriminated against too?!?!?!

I agree with Mark. Mindfulness is key. We need to watch for our own biases. This guy isn't doing that.

Colleen said...

I have been to some of these workshops and they never seem to focus on privilege, i.e. the institutional structures that have benefitted some groups more than others. White men are at the top of the privilege pile, followed by white women, and then there is the long tail of oppression - ethnic minorities, GLBT people, etc. and then you have people who are intersectional like white gay males or trans white males.

Without encouraging people to accept and own their privilege I think you get a lot of tone deaf nonsense like from the guy in your group. The highly privileged should tread lightly in discussions about privilege with those who have less of it than they do. White people shouldn't be dominating discussions about being an ethnic minority in academia, for example. It's actually somewhat disrespectful and just reinforces the same structures that caused the problems in the first place.

(end rant)

olympiasepiriot said...

Basically echoing and seconding Mark above at 5:53.

I just tell myself all the time to 'check' myself.


Do your best.

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. We just completed a superb 1.5 day workshop on diversity which similarly had a lot of group discussions. As an "old white man" I have some sympathy for the person you are discussing--it was hard for me to come up with a legitimate example of how I had been stereotyped, especially compared to those experienced by some black colleagues and, I also was confronted with my own tendency to be constantly thinking about my own response rather than really listening to the other person. I hope my colleagues from that workshop don't share your feelings, but directed at me.

I do know I learned a lot from the workshop--it opened my eyes to how much experiences like those I have read about here can shape your experience, and gave me ideas about how to help undergraduates struggling with these issues.

Mark P

Jorden said...

I think you raise a great dilemma to which I have no answer. I guess the guy was there, so that is a good start (?) (let's assume he was there voluntarily. But which is better: for a man to share a story that seems not quite to rise to the same level but demonstrates empathy and at least some level of openness to the topic? Or should he be "corrected" (not a great choice of word) about what really constitutes discrimination, etc? What a difficult situation. I do agree with John that perhaps this interrupting could have been pointed out to him - but correcting and "educating" male biases can frankly be exhausting, socially awkward, and make one a target for negative repercussions (even though that is incredibly unfair).

nordicTT said...

At least this this guy does not deny the problem. I've been talking with several men at my institution (northern europe) after similar workshops and some of them don't think the bias is an issue.

Why did the group let the man interrupt the other person?

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Yes there is a long history of bios, discrimination, stereotyping, etc. against women, ethnic minorities, GLBT, etc. But one thing no one discusses is bios based on personal relationships. After living and working in the US 20+ years, I am still shocked to discover that bios and favoritism towards relatives and friend, friends of friends, …, plays an important role in hiring and promotion and more often qualifications takes the back seat. I thought this only happen in 3rd world countries, but its worse here and no one admit it, and no one talks about it.

Mark said...

I'm a little embarrassed now that my comment, with a male name attached, was first (although since comments are moderated here I couldn't know it would be). In my defense, a) I made sure that no one else was trying to post a comment on my computer before I typed in mine, and b) I'm in Europe at the moment and probably saw the post before the majority of this blog's audience.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Ughhhhh. I was at a meeting a few months ago and encountered a person just like this. I was in a small working-group that was all women, plus a soft-spoken middle-aged man, and an "old guard" caucasian man. OG felt he needed to constantly talk and interrupt whomever was talking, even when people asked him not to.

At one point when we were trying to accomplish a task, OG even had the audacity to explicitly say his idea was the one we should use, and all the other ideas (from women) were wrong.

Once I realized what was happening, I started interrupting him, completely ignoring his words, and would over-laud and attend to women who had quietly made comments. "That's a GREAT idea, Sally! It fits in so well with X, Y, and Z techniques. I think we should definitely try that." I ignored him so much (and gave so much attention to the others) he started desperately trying to get my attention. It was almost comical.

Female Computer Scientist said...

@John V, why are you blaming the women for the man being a jerk? Basically, you're suggesting the women should adapt to his social ineptitude rather than he adapt to the Real World in which he is not at the center, and is frankly acting like a toddler.

Jorden is right - it is exhausting as a woman to constantly need to compensate for men being jerks. And it is also exhausting to have to adopt male interaction strategies in order to be considered someone who is worth listening to. We get massively socially penalized for this. (Lots of references out there on this)

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosie Redfield said...

Perhaps the women didn't shut down the man because women who do this are viewed as rude, and women pay a larger penalty for being rude than men do.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Placing blame on both sides implies it is the women's fault for not standing up to the rude man.

It is socially acceptable for men in STEM to act like toddlers. It is not acceptable for women in STEM to do the same. When we fight back aggressively, we suffer a great social penalty.

You are quoting me out of context. I said: "Jorden is right - it is exhausting as a woman to constantly need to compensate for men being jerks. And it is also exhausting to have to adopt male interaction strategies in order to be considered someone who is worth listening to. We get massively socially penalized for this. (Lots of references out there on this)"

We, women, are constantly compensating for men acting like jerks, which I am using synonymously with the term toddlers.

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colleen said...

"First, often in science women are a small minority of the group, and hence can be outsiders to the in-group culture. This seems to be the biggest problem, and the one that boosting the numbers of women in science is designed to remedy."

John I think you're well intended but your comments miss the mark. First, it's not just a numbers game that changes culture - it has to be a mindset change as well. If a department is run by 10 men with 20 women working under them those numbers alone don't guarantee a better culture for those women. There are some "old guard" female scientists I know who are just as bad about perpetuating sexist cultures as the men, for that matter.

As well, correcting someone for interrupting is retaliatory rudeness. It is indeed fine for the interrupted to say "excuse me, I'd like to finish" but that is a hard thing for any person to do. As women we have to fight the social conditioning to be polite to the point of a pushover - but I honestly put more of the onus on those who helped create and reinforce that standard in the first place. Also, as others have pointed out, what reads as assertive for a man can be judged as too aggressive for a woman.

Female Computer Scientist said...

"I'd prefer comments in blogs work toward understanding and improvement, not solely name-calling and catharsis, but of course abide by the consensus."

What you are doing in this sentence is called a tone argument, a specific kind of derailment:
http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument

Thankfully, your attempted derailment eloquently proves my point: "Always be a good girl! (Or else...)"

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Yes, John Vidale, tell us all about this unpleasant experience you're having, in which you feel hurt, feel stereotyped, and he felt that the comment was directed at him even if it was made in an apparently general way.

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Don't leave John V. You are part of the discussion. So what if some people don't agree with you?

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colleen said...

John, I wish you'd left your comments up. Deleting them just because not everyone agreed with all of it, or because people's responses were not to your taste, seems counterproductive to the dialogue.

Colleen said...

Also, there is no need to delete the comments and declare you are leaving the discussion - it's better netiquette to just bow out, if you care about that sort of thing.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=flounce

EliRabett said...

The person who should be shot is the person who told the group to "share experiences about being stereotyped"

You would have to be a rock not to know about stereotyping and its effects. The participants know otherwise why are they there.

"Sharing experiences" is part of the consciousness raising lexicon which was absolutely inappropriate in the context of a workshop for dealing with the effects of stereotyping.

The issue for a workshop group is to propose changes that improve whatever the workshop is dealing with not to engage in an ain't it awful fest. That's for the conversation at the coffee shop/bar later.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Even reading that story made me uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

I would like to think that my story would have started like this: "I was at a workshop on bias and when a woman started speaking, a man interrupted her saying, "I'll go first." It was as if she was inaudible and invisible to him."

Of course, this would probably have gone right past him. At least the other women would have had a good laugh.

Old Biddy said...

Unfortunately, that story doesn't surprise me at all. I spent many years working in a group where this was the dynamic 100% of the time. It was very unlike my grad school experience, where it was dog eat dog but women were not penalized for speaking up and being as competitive as the men. It was a major culture shock when I got to this group where I was constantly talked over and penalized for trying to hold my ground. I got a reputation for being too competitive, even though I wasn't doing anything different from anyone else. After a while I just got tired of trying to not let people interrupt me. The other women in the group also got talked over and stereotyped in other, equally negative ways.
Eventually I switched to another group in a field where I had less experience. Much to my surprise, the group dynamic was very different and no one interrupted me, people asked my opinion on things, etc, even though I was a newbie. It made me realize how disfunctional the first group was, especially when I'd go to meetings in the old group.
So yeah, it's easy to say that the group should've said something to the guy, but chances are they'd been through htis so many times they were either sick of it and/or conditioned to let things like this slide.

Mark P said...

One unusual but superb thing about the FSP blog is the quality of the discussion in the comments section, and the fact that it is open to discussion without attack. I come back becuase of FSPs ability to stimulate interesting discussion and because a number of the regular and new readers have interesting points of view that give me food for thought. John Vidale is a long tim, frequent , and from my point of view valuable commenter on this blog, and I would be very sad if he was chased off because he posted something with which a number of folks disagreed, and this led to an acrimonious discussion.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Mark P, as I understood it John V took exception to FCS's comment, "it is exhausting as a woman to constantly need to compensate for men being jerks." He felt that this was unreasonably broad and labeled all men as jerks.

He earlier pointed out, reasonably but frustratingly, that the woman interrupted simply should not have let it happen. She should have spoken up through the interruption. This is what FCS was responding to. This is what I get told by my husband whenever some slight comes along and three days later I realize what happened. "Well, you should have just...!" That's why a number of women in the comments had hackles raised. We get a lot of that. "Well, if you just spoke up... if you just pushed for that appointment... if you just didn't let sexism happen, then it wouldn't happen to you!"

Great. My own husband and many feminist guys on some level think that the inability to come up with a zinger to a rude guy at a conference or meeting or bar means that sexism only happens to weak women.

John Vidale said...

@anon - I said part of the blame, not the entire blame, and implicated the rest of the group, not just the overridden woman, as able to speak up.

But my bigger problem was that my perhaps disproportionate outrage at the rude characterization that dealing with men is dealing with jerks and toddlers was ignored, and instead my response was distorted and nitpicked.

I think the audience here has evolved during FSP's quiescence, and I'm no longer in tune.

Anonymous said...

John V, there may have been some evolution of the commentariat. I've been here for six years or so :)

I'm the anon at 9:36. I don't really want to talk about "part of the blame," as I'm most probably currently in the process of being leaked out of the STEM pipeline and I don't really know what to do about it. Hustling for 3 years of postdocs is just resulting in me being tired & caring less. Oh well.

But I will pick up on your comment that others should have helped out. This I agree with, and it's something we can all individually put into practice! I can, at meetings, say, "I think you interrupted Jane. Jane, could you finish that thought?" That's also easier than coming up with a zinger when slighted.

Isabel said...

"I admit that I thought his example was stupid and I thought that I would not like to be in his department. Not to be competitive or anything, but he came up with one ancient example in which his administrative prowess had been obliquely called into question. The women each had multiple recent experiences in which they had been the specific, personal target of some very unpleasant behavior by colleagues or administrators. "

The interruption was rude. But the rest of FSP harangue seems unjustified to me. A few years ago = ancient? In all the sexual harassment conversations recently myself and many others shared experiences from years ago. If his "administrative prowess had been obliquely called into question" by what does indeed sound like a demeaning and stereotypical remark about his nationality while he is in another country, why is it "stupid" to feel stereotyped or worry that it might affect his career?

Also lots of men, even white men have experienced prejudice and stereotyping, particularly lower class men. People think it's great if you can "pass" but then you get to hear all the demeaning "white trash" remarks because people don't know your background.

This post is silly, I support John V.

Anonymous said...

A few months ago, a very nice man I work with told me that it was TOTALLY possible to have a baby during residency. He had done it, after all! (His wife is a stay at home mom.)

I told him that while I was sure he was a very good and involved father, and that I appreciated the solidarity, that being a doctor-father to a newborn just wasn't the same as being a doctor-mother. For biological reasons, if nothing else.

This example reminds me of that. Obviously I wasn't there so can't comment on the vibe given off by this man, so I don't really know. But hey, at least the guy was trying, even though he was a bit clueless.

Anonymous said...

The last comment hit home for me: I (a female postdoc) have lost count of the number of times that male colleagues with stay-at-home wives have made comments in my hearing that assume that (1) moving for the sake of your career can be done without undue sacrifice in your personal life, or that (2) having children is an easy thing to do along the way without sacrifices in your career. I find that due to these and other related experience, I have an increasingly difficult time trusting that colleagues who have stay-at-home-wives will treat me fairly at work. People who do not recognize the invisible barriers that others may face tend to assume that the world is truly a meritocracy, and therefore if anyone progresses less rapidly in their career, it can only be because that person is less talented and competent.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting discussion over here about whether knowing about implicit biases is likely to make your behaviour any better (i.e. knowing about our biases means that, we can do some sort of conscious self-correcting). The evidence discussed suggests that knowing about our biases doesn't particularly help, since we tend to think of ourselves as exceptional (a better-than-average-bias), and the author of the post goes on to discuss whether knowing about cognitive biases might permit a kind of 'moral licensing', where we let ourselves off the hook too easily because we think we're well informed and self-policing.

Anonymous said...

I am a 32 year old white male scientist on the job market. During campus visits and talks, I am told by older female tenured scientists that I remind them of their sons and oh you must be so tired and oh can I get xyz for you .... and it is assumed that I participate in drinking culture by the older males. At a campus visit, I had breakfast with a select group of students who would be providing feedback to the search committee. All female, one African American, one Asian American, out of five students. Field is neuroscience. The Director of my PhD training program was a woman, half my thesis committee were women; about half of senior investigators whose coattails I currently ride to get grants are women; the Dean of the college I graduated undergrad from, and President of the Big State U were women. More than half of my PhD cohort were women, and only women have landed tenure track jobs yet (that I know of). I DO appreciate and have witnessed these one-off entitlement things (I know they come from white males, usually of a certain socioeconomic status), but I do not think this is as structural of an issue as it might seem. Does my being patronized by older women or atta-boy-drink-up by older men compare with your experiences? Maybe not, but this isn't a contest and I do the best I can.