Evidently unequal

by | Mar 12, 2016 | Uncategorized | 0 comments


By Suzana Sukovic

Articles about inequality have been frequent this week marking International Women’s Day. LARK has circulated its fair share on Facebook. In this blog post, I’d like to combine some of these posts with the recent evidence about inequality at the workplace. Of particular interest to LARK is how inequality affects knowledge fields. Admittedly, I don’t have a ready answer. The topic is so complex that it deserves several doctoral studies. My intention, however, is to start a conversation.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Evidently not if you are applying for a job. Studies have shown that your chance of getting a job interview depends to a large extent on your name. Researchers from the Australian National University conducted an experiment in which they sent exactly the same resume under different names and monitored interview invitations. In short, you have a much better chance of getting an interview if you have an English name (see short and long version of the results). Advantages of having the right name have been recognised in Canada as well so the Canadian government is considering the introduction of name-blind resumes

Do you know that male instrument players are more artistic and expressive? And who could beat black people’s sense of rhythm? True or not, that’s what many people in the music industry believe. Orchestras across the world decided to go against gender bias and ensure the best players by conducting blind auditions

Blind peer-review is a well-established process to ensure publication of the best research. Or, so the rationale goes. Academia, however, doesn’t fair any better than other fields in ensuring equality based on quality. Numerous studies have shown problems in advancing an academic career if you are a woman. Results differ from field to field and a positive organisational action can give an (unfair?) advantage to some women, but the overall statistics show a deeply rooted disadvantage for women and minorities. For example, academic panels value student feedback, but the chances of being described as a genius by students are much smaller if you are a black female (see summary of results). Throughout history, contributions of female researchers have been neglected or simply appropriated by their male colleagues. A recent article featured a case of forgotten work of women in computing (How female computers mapped the universe and brought America to the Moon). The situation in current computing-related fields still doesn’t look much better – just look at recent discussions in the field of digital humanities (see LARK post and Deb Verhoeven’s talk Has anyone seen a woman?)

Token ethnic

As a doctoral student, I participated in some supportive gatherings for women in academia. On one occasion, I chatted with a prominent social scientist of Asian descent. Things looked bright and hopeful. ‘Are we reaching the stage when ethnicity is not an issue in academia?’ I ventured. She paused for a moment: ‘Absolutely not’, she said. ‘Your chance of an academic career depends on whether you will be chosen as a token ethnic. I was.’ 

Well said. A whole decade later, I am still thinking and monitoring how this statement is playing out. I have a few hunches. An important job requirement for a token ethnic is to be visibly different. It looks good on pictures and organisational statistics.  A few statistical categories can be ticked for the price of one and a warm feeling comes as a bonus. If you don’t stand out, then it’s better not to be very different at all. A Western European with excellent English is good. 

Is it any different in the libraries? I doubt it, just have a quick glance at staff and managers. I’d love a grant to test and explain these impressions though. 

What’s wrong with the roses?

Nothing. They are great and there is a fair bit of variety. The only problem is that the diversity of species is better for the ecosystem. It makes the environment richer and stronger, not to mention that the energy exercised in weeding good species is counter-productive and wasteful.

‘A big data specialist Vivienne Ming has calculated the cost of being a woman or gay man in the same jobs as straight, white men. The numbers are staggering’ says this article on wastefulness of bias. Ming has also calculated the benefits of diversity. ‘Ming points out that Republican politicians in the US love to extol the virtues of less regulation and lower taxes; yet these entrepreneurs chose to move to more heavily-taxed places with stricter regulations but better attitudes towards diversity and inclusion.’ Simply, it makes financial sense.

But what about English? People from non-English speaking background are known for making grammatical mistakes and we don’t want those in our official speeches and writing. Firstly, it is a matter of attitude. If people are understood, it shouldn’t be a problem. Secondly, we can’t assume that English speakers are good presenters and writers anyway. Thirdly, the time spent on editing a written piece is well compensated by advantages in decision-making. Studies show that thinking in another language is likely to make decision-making more rational and accurate, mainly because we are less emotional in our non-native languages (see here and here). I heard it for the first time from a psychologist with a PhD who worked as a company advisor. ‘I always say to my clients to get non-native speakers as stock brokers.’ This psychologist, a native English speaker, alerted me to a significant line of research showing advantages of non-native speakers in accuracy of information processing and decision-making.

In a similar vein, diversity has been proposed as the recipe for balancing out inherent political bias in social sciences. The most important point, however, is that inequality wastes human potential in ways that no one could measure. 

Out of the mouths of babes

We know that the diversity and differences are a matter of interpretation, but no one can make common truths as obvious as children. I’ve worked in a school in Sydney where I was the only professional staff who spoke with a foreign accent at the time. In my early days at the school, I went to an excursion with a small group of Australian teenagers. They asked me about my professional and national background. I told them a bit and added, ‘I’ve just realised, I am your only teacher who speaks with an accent’. ‘Oh, NOOO!’ they answered in a unison, and then continued in hushed voices: ‘You know, Miss G. has a very strong accent’. Miss G. is an Anglo-Australian from Melbourne.

Source of the image above


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