Intelligence Squared is a group that organizes live public debates on political and philosophical topics. I’ve been to one of their New York City events before, a debate about whether the world would be better off without religion.
In general, I’m all for this idea. It’s a welcome echo of the era of Robert Ingersoll, when public lectures and debates were considered the height of popular culture, and I’m all in favor of any kind of entertainment that encourages people to turn their brains on and think critically. But looking at the IQ2 upcoming debate schedule for the fall, it’s hard not to notice a trend.
There are six debates scheduled for the rest of the year, on the U.S. drone program, on veganism, on breaking up the big banks, on the right to bear arms., among others Those are all fine topics. But of the 23 named debaters, 21 of them are white men, and zero are women. (When the schedule was first announced, 22 of the speaker slots had been filled; since then, one more has been taken up by a white man.) There’s just one slot left to be filled, and although I’d encourage them to pick a woman, just 1 out of 24 seems like a too-little-too-late gesture toward diversity against the background of a largely monochrome lineup.
Since we can take it as given that there are plenty of women who are qualified to debate these issues, I think the only reasonable conclusion is that bias is playing a role. I’m not saying that IQ2’s debate schedule has to be an exact 50-50 split between men and women. Nor am I saying that this result has to be due to deliberate and malicious sexism. But when white men are consistently and hugely overrepresented relative to their share of the population, it’s right to point out to the debate organizers that something is obviously influencing their choices, because they may not realize it themselves. (IQ2’s Twitter account says it brings together “leading authorities“. What are we meant to conclude when the set of “leading authorities” includes no women?)
Just the same way, if I had a bag containing 50 red balls and 50 green balls, and I reached in 24 times to pull one out, you’d expect that I’d get a roughly even split between the colors. If my selection process instead resulted in 23 green balls, you’d be right to conclude that something was going wrong with the process, that the way I was choosing them wasn’t random.
This is a case where consciousness-raising is called for. An all-male panel debating an issue that affects both men and women shouldn’t be the unremarkable norm, as it so often is. It should be viewed as strange, as out of the ordinary, as an unusual fact that cries out for an explanation.
In fairness, although they’ve never been close to parity, Intelligence Squared has included women in past debates, including some that took place earlier this year. And if there were even a few women on the schedule for the rest of 2013, I wouldn’t have written this. But I have to call attention to it because this kind of unconscious selection bias is self-perpetuating. When people only see men debating serious issues, they come to think of men as the only kind of people who should be debating serious issues, the only kind of people who have anything interesting to contribute. In that hostile climate, proposals for being more inclusive tend to be decried as “tokenism” – as though the only reason for including women or minorities was to soothe their feelings, rather than because a debate which contains only or mostly white men is potentially leaving out a huge breadth of viewpoints.