Bias or Just Natural? (RJS)

Whenever issues of bias or stereotype have been raised on this blog someone, usually a different person each time, has been quick to jump in with the claim that we shouldn’t be aiming for equality in that way. Often others rapidly agree. People have different abilities and desires. And some of these may be tied to gender. (I suspect that some want to say they may be tied to race as well – but don’t dare.)

Of course desires and goals play a role – but how big a role?

Several different people, including Scot, sent me a link to a New York Times article last Thursday – Why Are There Still  So Few Women In Science by Eileen Pollack.  For some strange reason they all thought I’d be interested … and I was.

Pollack starts with an illustration from a recent study:

Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.

The study Pollack cites was published in PNAS September 2012: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. This one is available open access if you wish to read it.

The resume was randomly assigned a male or female name and this alone changed the likelihood of getting the job and the salary offered.

Stereotype bias is alive and well in our world (and, by the way, in our church – where it is often less subtle, more overt).

In the New York Times article Pollack goes on to reflect on her experiences as an undergraduate at Yale majoring in physics, graduating with honors, and leaving physics for other pursuits. She is now a professor in the English Department at Michigan, in creative writing. She also recounts interviews with women currently studying in the sciences or on the faculty at Yale.  It is worth a read.

Along the same line, I’ve been reading a book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele, a Professor of Psychology, formerly Provost at Columbia University and now Dean for the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.  Stereotypes don’t only hurt women and minorities – and it isn’t only an issue in math and science. Stereotypes and the threat they pose also have a significant impact on white males, or any other group.

One of the studies Steele discusses in the opening chapters of his book considered stereotype threat experienced by men in a game of indoor golf.  When white men were told the game was designed to test their natural athletic ability they performed poorly compared with white men who were simply playing the game without the threat introduced by a test of ability.  Black men, on the other hand, performed the same whether they were told it was a test of natural athletic ability or not.  They were not threatened by this test of ability.

And then the tables were turned. When the men were told it was a test of “sports strategic intelligence” the white men performed the same as those who were simply playing the game, but the black men performed significantly worse.   They felt the pressure of the stereotype that blacks are less intelligent. In this situation the white men were not threatened.

Both groups felt the threat of stereotypes, but the triggers were different.

I don’t think we should aim for an artificial 50/50 in any profession or role. But I do think we should aim for an environment where all are treated fairly, and feel they can perform (or play) without threat of stereotype.  Frankly it wears people down, and eventually becomes more burden than challenge or fun.

And lest you think the church is free of this bias, think again. I rather suspect that it is as hard to be oneself in a church as it is in any other community gathering. Stereotypes and stereotype threat hangs “in the air” of halls and the sanctuaries of our churches as well.  And this is true for both men and women, as well as for minorities of any kind, although the threats are different.

Read the article, read the book if you care to (I may post on it again down the road).

What do you think?

Where do you sense stereotype threat?

How can we be on guard against stereotype bias?

Or should we be on guard? (Perhaps it is functional good, valuable in a society, not an evil to be overcome or eliminated.)

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Ted M. Gossard

    I don’t think we are appreciated for what we are and what we are trying to do, as well as the context in which we do it. Just be ourselves. Learn from others, but the heck with worrying about meeting anyone’s expectations. That’s where I’m at. It may be partly in frustration, but it’s not without substance.

    Yes, the church is guilty as charged. And as a result it is monotonous, on monotone, so many people’s contribution all but lost, because it must fit into something which does nothing more than squelch who they are, and the creativity that otherwise might blossom and flourish.

    And while human tests have some value, I wonder if many times they do more harm than good. Isn’t life a bit more complicated than we make it, or at least different, too many times?

    I guess this post triggered some thoughts that come out of my own pain. I won’t miss any of this when I’m gone (I’m getting up their in age a bit- ha).

  • Rick

    “People have different abilities and desires. And some of these may be tied to gender…Of course desires and goals play a role – but how big a role?”

    Although it is in a different field, I cannot help but think if the dust-up this past week over the idea of Condoleezza Rice being on the college football playoff committee.
    She would bring her brilliance to the committee, and her passion for football. But because she has not actually played (or that is the reason some are using), some do not consider her qualified. Of course, some college football coaches never played college football- but that is not important to the critics :^)

  • Adam

    I almost think this is an impossible situation. If there’s any difference from a 50/50 split (and there always will be) people will attribute it to bias. Constant vigilance for total equality also wears people down and becomes a burden.

    And that’s actually the explanation for why bias exists. We have biases because to adequately evaluate every situation is too draining. So having biases wears us down and not having biases wears us down. Seems like a hopeless situation to me.

  • Norman

    Thankfully we are living in a world that is becoming more acceptable to equality as time goes on. In 2nd Temple Judaism and the Greco Roman world of that time people were grouped in hierarchal levels and were expected to know their place in the body politic. That is the background of some of the worldview of Paul that we see glimpses of regarding women. Unfortunately we in the Christian world view have attempted to lock ourselves into that ancient mindset that is reflected in OT and NT scripture and so we keep propagating archaic thinking and making it difficult to evolve into the higher ways of equality that our Creator has imbued us with.

    As long as Christians believe that the OT and NT locks us into ancient corporate identities as the highest level of wisdom then it becomes difficult to move the group mindset. We influence the world around us with these concepts.

  • OwenW

    The issue with stereotypes is complex. At one level, they may be formed by patently wrong inferences (AKA false beliefs) about people with a certain feature. At another level, they may be derived by observation of a correlation with some feature of a person. To make it even murkier, a stereotype may form from a combination of both.

    And even for those who endeavor not to stereotype, it still occurs when we encounter an ambiguous person. However, stereotypes become minimized when we have significant amount of contact with someone of a certain group. For instance, I have been told “You are an intelligent thinker. You are not like other Christians.” Or I remember a white racist who thought a black football player from his high school was a great guy. Stereotypes tend to fade for people when they get to know people who ‘buck the trend’ in some form. But these psychological study tests replicate the circumstances of high ambiguity, no personal contact at all. They are reliable indicators for selection processes where there is no contact. (Of course, familiarity creates its own form of prejudices in that we prefer those whom we are familiar with and like more than others. In trying to be neutral and fair without basing decisions on social interaction, we ironically stereotype more).

    We should be concerned about stereotypes under two circumstances:
    1) When dealing with someone who overtly believes in the absolute value of the stereotypes (i.e. racists, partisan politicians, misogynsts, some extreme feminists, etc).
    2) When dealing with a situation where there is little free and personal contact.

    But being constantly vigilant towards stereotypes is draining as has been said. And as soon as you get rid of an overt stereotype, the covert, unconscious stereotypes will persist. And even when you stamp out that stereotype by in large by ‘awareness’, another one will come to take its place. It is how we respond to ambiguity. It is no different than when we jump when we see something that looks like a snake in the woods, although at closer look it is a stick.

  • pduggie

    Women predominate in life sciences.

  • I still remember the day when my high school biology teacher encouraged me to consider the sciences. As a result, I switched from pursuing a business degree to geophysics. At Cal, though, I had a bad TA teaching my second quarter of calculus and so dropped it, and then went and got a business degree at UC Boulder in Mineral Land Management. Still some science but no math. And I still regret not getting that geophysics degree. I think if I had had some support at that point I might have continued. Perhaps it is the same in the Church. I don’t think men realize how important it is for them to mentor women. It’s pretty rare to find another woman who likes to sit around and consider N.T. Wright for example! Yet–the wives get jealous, the men get attracted, and then women don’t get the encouragement and conversation and help that they need to succeed. Therefore, I think the stereotypes are real and we aren’t as qualified usually, or just differently qualified. And it’s true–I’m a lot less likely to read a woman theologian, for instance, than a man. Maybe the women’s ideas don’t get promoted as often?

  • livingmartyrs

    I think the ‘win’ is to evaluate people we encounter on their own merits. I believe we need to recognise that even if our data could ever be free of bias (ha!), our statistical analysis still doesn’t usually do much to get at the causal vs. correlation divide. (Or the descriptive vs. prescriptive one, either.) While creating stereotypes is an important way we make sense of the world, the key is to be ready to reconstruct or abandon them when meeting an actual person.

    That we can never get this perfect isn’t hopeless — it just puts an ever greater emphasis on grace. The grace to hold loosely to our own assumptions and expectations. The grace to be patient with those with a tight grip on theirs. And, while examining ourselves in light of both of those tendencies, also the grace to stand up for victims of blatant prejudice.

  • I would like to ask a very politically incorrect question:

    are, statistically speaking, women as good as men (and vice versa) for every type of job NOT demanding physical strengths?

    I don’t know, there are contradictory in the scientific literature about that.

  • labreuer

    A good way to investigate this is to ask the question in different societies, where the expectations held out for women differ. That way, we can try and eliminate the impact that the culture has on girls as they grow up. Many studies err by only looking at American college students; this allows for an incredible amount of bias in such studies.

  • labreuer

    This is one place where fear of an impartial God who will judge each person according to his or her deeds sounds quite appealing. If we live our lives according to an “I’m better than those people” metric and then God treats us the same way except via an objective (his) “better than”, that’s scary. “But many who are first will be last…”

  • Another fascinating (and very practical) question is the following:

    is it true that men are more visual than women, that women can more easily use their sex appeal than men? And if so, is it really biological or cultural?

    2013/10/10 Disqus

  • Susan_G1

    Bias in church is present but doesn’t bother me so much. I can find a different church, or work to overcome biases, or accept them. It doesn’t really bother me, because they seem so irrational, I can kind of write them off.

    Other biases, though, are more problematic and affect the way I am allowed to live. There was a heavy bias against women in medicine when I applied, and it wasn’t illegal for interviewers to insult my gender to my face. Legislation has helped women a lot. But there is unaffected bias – the reason I left research. There were few women researchers in the national lab I was studying at, and the few there were had smaller labs, less support staff, and fought much harder for grants than the average male, who could rise to prominence just by having the right friends (who served on the grant committees – the good ole’ boy network). The most common way for a woman to get ahead (look at the stories concerning the brilliant Rosalind Franklin and how she was treated by her peers) was to hitch her wagon to a man. A few years of witnessing that, and I was outta there. So it did truly affect my livelihood.

    I love Claude Steele and Whistling Vivaldi. I’m glad to see his work highlighted here.

    I don’t have any answers. Are women as good as men in sciences? I think they are; I don’t think out minds are that different. I do think our upbringing and our experiences in education are different.

    Should we guard against stereotype bias? I would flip that around: do we want to deny some people the ability to do what they love (or even to walk through a neighborhood) simply because we don’t want to think about our thinking processes? I believe that goes against the Greatest Commandment.

  • Thursday1

    There are extreme problems with studies of stereotype threat. See here and here for starters.

  • Thursday1

    Incidently, stereotypes tend to be quite accurate. See this book, and this book.

  • Thursday1

    Yes, Susan Pinker’s book goes into a lot of this in a detailed way.

  • RJS4DQ


    I never said they were universally inaccurate. Some are very accurate. For example men are far more likely to be violent than women, an empirically demonstrable fact. So the caution I take in many circumstances is simply wise. This is true even though it means that I am judging based on a stereotype and that not every man is violent.

    Many stereotypes are not nearly as accurate.

  • Thursday1

    You should read the books to see just how accurate they usually are. How can you resist a book with the subtitle: “Why Accuracy Dominates Bias.”

  • RJS4DQ

    Lothar Lorraine,

    Whether or not abilities are distributed equally “statistically speaking” isn’t really the issue. An artificial 50/50 isn’t the point.

    Whether men in general are better at math than women in general says nothing significant about any given individual. I am still better at math than the majority of people reading this blog, and my female string theorist colleague is off scale in the company of very very few, either male or female.

    So is it wise to make decisions based on the stereotype when it comes to hiring, or encouraging someone to pursue a graduate degree?

    And I could come up with an example going the other way as well.

  • No matter the statistics, nobody should be discriminated.

    2013/10/11 Disqus

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Here is a diagram that lists PhD ratios by discipline.

    It is worth observing the way that ratios tend to follow such predictable patterns that one could almost be told a subject and give a good guess at the gender ratio from its general character. Highly abstract, thing-focused, subjects tend to be male dominated, as do subjects with a culture of agonistic and disputational discourse. More person-focused subjects and those concerned with less agonistic or oppositional relations tend to be female dominated.

    It is also interesting to notice the way that markedly different preferences can be seen within disciplines. For instance, my girlfriend, doing a History PhD in Cambridge, comments on how the field shows fairly marked and predictable division of the genders in its sub-disciplines, something that I have noticed in my own PhD studies.

    Even when there aren’t many external limitations that can be blamed, extremely marked differences between male and female preferences can be observed. For instance, over 85% of Wikipedia’s editors are male, and they tend to be the most active too (this graph of relative editing rates for different articles is extremely striking). Areas that are dominated by one gender can naturally tend to develop characteristics that make them less friendly, accommodating, or appealing to the other (male contexts can become extremely confrontational, aggressive, disputational, and cruel, for instance, while female contexts can be hypersensitive, precious, or excessively focused upon inclusion and equality).

    When it comes to stereotypes, there are a few points that I seldom see adequately addressed.

    1. In situations where we have to make decisions based upon limited information and in the face of uncertainties, we often need to rely in large measure upon general patterns and their associated possibilities. Like actuaries, we often have to operate with (in our case largely implicit) stochastic models of our world. While a person who sees two almost identical applications from a man and a woman may have no other way of distinguishing the two applicants, in the gender difference alone, they are given significant information relating to probabilities. In preferring one over the other (the one preferred can vary from context to context), the employer may be making a wise choice on the basis of their knowledge of how the relative probabilities on significant criteria will affect the applicants’ functioning within their position. The whole notion that two candidates for a post are to be presumed equally suitable if only their sex differs wrongly presumes that sex conveys no information. In actual fact, it conveys a great deal of probabilistic information. Those who heed this information can do far better than those who don’t.

    2. Stereotypes play a very important role in affiliations. They identify the sorts of family resemblances out of which groups can be formed. As probabilistic judgments, they enable us to take action without having to exhaustively analyse someone first. They can name things that we have in common with others. We can also conform to group stereotypes as means of association and this is in many senses a good thing. The idea that we would be better off without stereotypes altogether seems wrong-headed to me, although we should identify ways in which they function negatively (for instance, when they start to become dangerously limiting beliefs). Stereotypes aren’t always appropriate to every case, but they can really come in handy. For instance, in knowing how someone will fit into the context of your organization or discipline.

    3. Where certain stereotypes exist, they can liberate groups to function in particular ways. The admittance of someone into the group who is not covered by the stereotype risks the reduction of that functioning. For instance, as a guy, I know that I can engage in forceful and confrontational dialogical sparring with other guys, knowing that we are covered by a masculinity stereotype and its associated duty to ‘man up’ and accept rougher (but not vicious or malicious) interactions without taking them personally. This stereotype enables some profoundly illuminating and productive interactions, especially for those of us who love respectful but vigorous disputation. However, when a woman joins such a group, she isn’t covered by the liberating stereotype and the dynamic typically has to shift to accommodate her, often losing that which attracted many of us to it in the first place and a measure of its effectiveness. While women can prove themselves over time to be willing to submit to a group’s stereotype facilitating something such non-personal ritual verbal combat, for instance, such a stereotype is far more immediately effective in the case of men. Mutatis mutandis similar comments can be made about men in other contexts.

  • RJS4DQ


    Interesting comment. Your first point could go a number of directions. One thing that occurred to me about the study Pollack started with is that the transcript included a dropped science class for the applicant. Suppose that women seldom drop classes and when they do it often indicates serious difficulties, on the other hand, men often drop classes for other reasons. If this was true it wouldn’t really indicate a gender bias to favor the male candidate. Reality can be complicated.

    More studies are then necessary with additional controls or parameters.

  • RJS4DQ

    Do you think your third point justifies discrimination? Should I not be in that physics group because it disrupts a productive dynamic and functions better when all male?

  • Alastair J Roberts

    No, I don’t think so. However, it may be a consideration in more marginal cases. In most cases the appropriate response would be to seek to obtain more information about the ability and willingness of the candidates to function under certain conditions before making a decision. Ideally, we want to create welcoming environments, open to people who don’t fit the stereotypes and make our institutions and organizations accommodating to a more diverse group of participants. However, the stereotypes can help to nudge people more likely to be suited to certain environments in appropriate directions.

    Discrimination needn’t be a bad thing, per se. People aren’t interchangeable and treating people differently, provided that this is done on the basis of significant differences, is not altogether inappropriate (we discriminate against blind people when it comes to driving licenses, for instance). The law limits us here, of course. For instance, companies may not be permitted to make decisions based upon the very real and highly significant probabilistic differences occasioned by pregnancy.

    Lack of discrimination in such cases may often need to work both ways. If a context requires a more confrontational and agonistic form of interactions, for instance, women may need to surrender certain of their expected rights to protection or special treatment.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Definitely. In many cases it might lead a person wisely to favour a female candidate over a male one. My point is just that sex does indicate rather a lot of potentially significant probabilistic differences in many relevant areas, even when everything else seems equal. Those who hold that any marked preference for one sex over the other must be sexist (in a pejorative sense) in such situations seem to presume that sex is an empty fact. I am merely suggesting that it isn’t.

  • Susan_G1

    As probabilistic judgments, they enable us to take action without having to exhaustively analyse someone first.

    This is your justification right here for the perpetuation of biases. Why should you have to think once you’ve made up your mind? The reason is that there’s a possibility you’re wrong.

    I am not in favor of ad hominem approaches. But I will tell you that I have found this approach in someone before, a male, who suffers from a severe lack of empathy. He loves debate, but doesn’t “brook fools” well (i.e. people who disagree with him.) He once passed a harsh judgement on me (which was erroneous) and in discussing it, I warned him to be prepared, because he would probably have to change his mind about the issue once he knew the facts. His answer was (think about your justification here), “I find when I’ve given sufficient amount of thought to a matter, I am usually right, and to re-think the issue is a waste of time.” I gave him unknown facts, and as reluctant as he was to rethink the matter, he was forced to come to a different conclusion. It was very difficult for him.

    I find your approach to be supremely self-centered. It is also arrogant. Finally, I don’t know your spiritual orientation, but this behavior of prejudging is not only socially unfair, but it is also quite unloving. My ‘bias’ tells me you’re a staunch Calvinist (if you have any belief) and are perfectly comfortable there. You know, predestination and everything, all worked out and immutable, and so true.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    I hope that you appreciate the extreme irony of your comment here: for someone supposedly vehemently opposed to prejudice, you have tried to ‘type’ me in the most elaborate and thorough detail (and revealing a fair number of your own stereotypes and prejudices in the process).

    I won’t bother to respond to your misguided assumptions about me in detail. Suffice it to say that I am not short of people who know me very well in person (while holding views diametrically opposed to my own on many issues), who have arrived at a very different assessment of my character.

    My point here has merely been that things such as sex do genuinely convey probabilistic information and that such information is serviceable on many occasions. How we act upon stereotypes and carefully assessed probabilistic judgments is obviously the key consideration here.

    In the ideal situation, we would like to pursue more information, so that we are judging people purely on their individual merits, rather than on the basis of any group-based judgment (sex, ethnicity, socio-economic background, religion, place of origin, affiliations, etc.). This is what we want to aim for. However, much of the time we don’t have that luxury. If you have two hundred applications on your desk for a single post, or you are engaged in security and have to assess potential threats in split second judgments, or you are online dating, or you are insuring people, etc., you need to make judgments without the luxury of time or further information and probabilistic assessments can really come in handy. Other examples could be given.

    Group-based judgments fill gaps where we lack information concerning particular individuals and the means or time to obtain it. For instance, we usually have no way of knowing the exact nature of future risks we are incurring in insuring or hiring a person, but group-based judgments can give us some indication. Most of us don’t let such group-based judgments do our assessments of individuals for us. I try to approach every individual with an open mind and let them reveal what type of person that they are. However, when I lack this luxury or I must assess future uncertainties, while recognizing their limitations, I am quite prepared to use group-based judgments. And sex is a very helpful indicator in many areas when it comes to such group-based judgments.

    Obviously, group-based judgments can often be wrong about particular individuals—we are dealing with probabilistic, not deterministic models here, so this is what we expect. However, good group-based judgments will typically be significantly better than random chance when it comes to determining appropriate action in the face of uncertainty or limited information.

  • Susan_G1

    I do not appreciate the irony you see. I do not know you personally, of course. I might assume that is because God has willed it. I feel like the grateful Calvinist at the bottom of the stairs, only His choice for me was to miss that particular fall.

    My assumptions, are they misguided because they’re erroneous or are they correct? They are based on information about you that you yourself have supplied, about yourself. Not a stereotype. And people of the strong reformed tradition. Would that it were not so.

    In any case,

    I try to approach every individual with an open mind and let them reveal what type of person that they are. However, when I lack this luxury or I must assess future uncertainties, while recognizing their limitations, I am quite prepared to use group-based judgments. And sex is a very helpful indicator in many areas when it comes to such group-based judgments.

    I highly doubt that people with such strong beliefs in the usefulness of stereotypes actually have an “open mind” when they approach individuals. That is the whole point of this post. People who hold to stereotypes do not see them as undesirable or harmful, nor do they see any reason to abandon them. And in the process, real people – not data points, not cardboard cut-outs – get hurt.

    Have you read “Whistling Vivaldi”? That author is a thinker, and a very good one at that. He describes his friend, a black man walking through a white neighborhood, and fully recognizing the reaction whites have to him (see Obama’s speech following the Trayvon Martin verdict), he puts them at ease by whistling Vivaldi. No one expects a “thug” (their stereotype, not mine) to be refined in that “white” kind of way. It works. Too bad Trayvon, the real person who suffered from stereotyped prejudice, didn’t know that trick.

    He believes in the stereotype-threat effect: that academic and intellectual performance is not simply contingent upon actual ability, but also the shared beliefs that people hold about the performance and abilities of different social groups. He looks at many groups, not only blacks and women. And he more than proves his points.

    It’s a very good book. You might find it enlightening. I hope you do read it.

  • Tom F.

    Stereotype threat in the church: generated whenever you force more gender-traditional men into more relational activities in the church (for which they are *supposedly* worse; and the church even tells them that they’re worse at it sometimes).

    Or when church Bible studies end up generating stereotype threat around education between classes…

    Or, or, or…

  • RJS4DQ


    I find your third point really telling. “Where certain stereotypes exist, they can liberate groups to function in particular ways. The admittance of someone into the group who is not covered by the stereotype risks the reduction of that functioning.

    I’ve heard this reasoning in many cases. And I used the physics example because this is one of the many situations where I’ve heard it used. I think this kind of reasoning is actually the very heart of the problem because in the vast majority of cases it isn’t better functioning, it is comfortable and exclusionary “just like me-ism.”

    In general when the group becomes more inclusive some things change – often for the better, if only because the people involved are no longer allowed to be comfortable in a socially constructed insider – outsider mentality.

    And let me add to this a bit … the resentment as a result of having “broken up the fun” is powerfully damaging. I, for example, may be made to feel guilty for enjoying physics and theology – or at least guilty for wanting to join the (otherwise male) groups working in either of these areas. Is this right? Actually a justification for stereotype?

    Of course, there is a time and place for various kinds of homogenous groups – but we really should think hard about the true purpose and value.

  • branchl666

    Humans have the capability to change and we have been given help by God to do that. Scientist like all humans live with fear. Any person presented with a change in the status quo will most likely act to protect the traditions of the social order. The social order determines value and only a change of heart by God can alter our actions. This was the subject of my latest post “Is there sufficient evidence that we are living justly?”

  • Alastair J Roberts

    There are definitely occasions when it can become such ‘just like me-ism’. However, there are other occasions when the stereotype is conducive to the performance of functions that are essential to a group’s ends. This isn’t about ‘breaking up the fun’ at all, but about complicating the performance of the essential tasks of a group.

    A primary example here is in agonistic contexts, where the stereotype that men should stick up for themselves, operate at their own risk, and not expect protection, frees groups to have the sort of rough and challenging interactions that really sharpen thought and ability through vigorous competition and ritual (or actual) combat.

    Women, not being covered by such stereotypes, can render such groups less effective, unless they clearly forfeit any right to and refuse any protection, oppose all white-knighting, resist all stigma on anyone who hurts them (no matter how badly) in the course of regular and non-malicious operations, prove that they have thick skins, the ability to stick up for themselves, and the capacity to give as good as they get. Women are not covered by the sort of liberating stereotypes that allow men to engage in ritual and actual combat with each other. This often leads to difficulties in contexts where highly combative modes of discourse exist and is also one of the greatest problems with women in the military, for instance.

    Some like to oppose or stigmatize such modes of interaction altogether. However, such rough, combative, or extremely competitive modes of interaction can be tremendously productive and effective in certain tasks (while definitely profoundly damaging in others). They are not intrinsically vicious, necessarily driven by personal animus, or merely reactively antagonistic at all. They can often provide for a liberating context where people can play to and act according to their strengths, without always having to accommodate the heightened sensitivities or weaknesses of others. This sort of rough interaction is a great sharpener for thought, mercilessly knocks edges off poorly formed beliefs, and is fairly unforgiving when it comes to the sort of errors that must be tolerated in more ‘sensitive’ contexts. Where such forms of interaction are neglected, and everyone has to ‘play nice’ or gently all of the time, we lose an essential part of our ideological, social, and political apparatus.

    So, no, this is not just about a general preference for homogeneity (actually, in most cases I believe that we should have a natural preference for more diverse groups).

  • pduggie

    I’m surprised anyone would take “probabilistic judgement” as meaning a mind is made up. I think the term as its used positively means that the mind is not made up, except enough to take action (we do this all the time. My fridge was making a weird noise this AM, but I probabilisticly judged it didn’t need immediate service. If it changed its behavior, i would reassess.)

    Someone making a probabilistic judgement admits there is a possibility they are wrong: its right there in the word “probabilistic”

  • pduggie

    ISTM knowledge of those shared beliefs is one thing to factor into the probabilistic judgements. The author of “Whistling Vivaldi” makes one too: that people in a white neighborhood would be put at ease by vivaldi.

  • RJS4DQ

    As my post started off with academia, let me start there as well. Having been in secular academia for some 30+ years at this point – from graduate student to professor – I have a perspective on this that might surprise you.

    Academia is a place where the interactions are often rough and it is important to mercilessly knock the edges off of poorly formed beliefs. After all we are in pursuit of defensible truth not some fantasy. Everything (and I mean everything) is up for challenge and requires defense. Nothing is simply taken on authority. This isn’t a male thing or a female thing – and no one (except some younger students at times) needs a defender or protector. So I don’t see this as a justification for separation. The problem isn’t bringing women into the mix as much as it is the attitude and mentality of men. Generally this improves once there is a mix in the department. It doesn’t get much gentler – it just doesn’t matter any more. We become used to dealing with each other as peers.

    Do you think it possible that men, at times, simply don’t want to have the challenge come from a woman? Especially if they are having the edges knocked off of poorly formed ideas … by a woman. After all, they are supposed to be the smarter, stronger, protector.

  • RJS4DQ


    There was no assumption about people being put at ease by whistling the Beatles or Vivaldi.

    Rather a black student in Hyde Park, Chicago, quite accidentally discovered that when he whistled Vivaldi or The Beatles (a nervous habit of his) the people around him were put at ease.

    This event, told in a later book, was then taken by Steele as the title of his book.

  • Thursday1

    Everything (and I mean everything) is up for challenge and requires defense.

    This is false. There are quite a few sacred cows that you just can’t touch. Groupthink is quite common in academia.

    It’s indeed very ironic, but Susan quite strikingly exemplifies this attitude. Even just raising these issues resulted in her questioning the moral character of those with a position opposite to her. This behaviour is not at all uncommon in academic settings, and tends to result in a stifling of genuine debate.

  • RJS4DQ


    Any idea that challenges the accepted wisdom will receive push back. Wisdom, patience, and powerful arguments are required to make any headway (however slow).

    But everything certainly does require defense … or it will eventually fall. The key really is “eventually.” Most do not change their minds at the drop of a hat.

  • Thursday1

    I notice you have changed the subject.

  • Thursday1

    I.e. There is a massive difference between giving pushback and attempts to rule certain ideas out of bounds, particularly by impugning the character of those advancing them.

  • Susan_G1

    This is nonsense. If I agree, I’m supporting bias. If I disagree, I’m exemplifying bias. What kind of closed thinking is this? Let me rephrase. This is not ‘thinking’ at all.

    And, pray tell, why should I not question the character of anyone who defends the usefulness of prejudice? It is not godly or loving or fair.

  • Susan_G1

    You should go on Grand Rounds or to a Morbidity & Mortality Conference. In medicine, from student on up, a Socratic/dialectical method of teaching is involved which is pretty brutal (hence the nickmane “pimping”). And in my experience, it doesn’t get softened by women. I’ve seen it when I was the only female, and it still exists today, when there are 40+% women. We must engage like all others.

    Your belief might be justified in your own circumstances (which I doubt) but you cannot generalize. Your comments are condescending and chauvinistic.

  • Susan_G1

    some character traits need to be shown the light of day. Some characters (e.g. George Zimmerman’s) will be examined when their biases are perceived as causing harm to others.

    We see the problem of bias everywhere. Last week Johnathan Ferrell (a large, athletic black youth or man, to me a youth) was in a horrible car crash. He broke out the back window to escape and walked, injured, to the nearest home hoping for help. He knocked on the door, bloodied, asking the homeowner to call the police. She did. The 911 call showed a frightened woman assuming the worst. The police, also assuming the worst when they saw this large bloodied black man walking towards them, shot him dead. (He was dazed and unarmed.)

    We should all be willing to engage with people who hold to stereotypes, whatever euphemism they use for them, whatever rationale they give for holding to them.

  • Susan_G1

    It was not the author of Whistling Vivaldi who made that assumption. You misread that in my comment. A friend of the author’s, Brent Staples (who writes for the New York Times) did this as a graduate student, at the University of Chicago, walking down the street dressed as a student and realizing that his mere presence was making whites uncomfortable. And his hope was correct and reasonable. It was a way to break stereotypes.

    Steele: “And they would avoid him or sort of cross the street to get away from him and so on. He realized from this kind of behavior that they were seeing him through the lens of a negative stereotype about African-Americans in that neighborhood, that perhaps as a young male, black male, he might be violent. And it was making his whole experience of the situation tense and awkward. He learned how to whistle Vivaldi to deflect that stereotype. ”

    It is exactly in line with what Obama spoke of in his speech.

  • Susan_G1

    I am not in academia, I am a practicing physician. What made you think I was in academia, defending “groupthink”? A bias coming from not reading/incorporating all the data? You alluded to assumptions about me (I am in academia) and then attributed a behavior to me on that basis (I defend groupthink). This comes of bias, not thinking.

  • Susan_G1

    RJS, the student – Brent Staples of the NYT – did indeed start to whistle Vivaldi as a way of putting whites at ease, per Steele himself (I cannot find an account be Brent Staples himself). And it worked. He may have been a nervous whistler, but he thought about the stereotype, he came up with a hypothesis – that white people would be surprised hear a black youth whistling “cultured” music and might be forced to confront their stereotype, he tested it, and it worked. Not a happenstance. Not a nervous black kid in a white environment whistling his favorite tunes. The story is a moving one. It captures the burden of being in situations in which we are impacted by stereotypes, and the admirable capability some have to function in spite of them. A good, small example of an experiment in the psychology of bias, of which the book is full.

    I am still trying to find Staples’ account of this.

  • Thursday1

    There you go again, trying to shut down people who disagree with you. Vile.

  • Susan_G1

    Your interpretation. Shortsighted. The comments above are condescending and chauvenistic. I’m not trying to shut you or anyone else down. Just because you label opposing thought as such does not make it so.

  • Thursday1

    Never said you were in academia. Please read again.

  • Susan_G1

    ” There are quite a few sacred cows that you just can’t touch. Groupthink is quite common in academia.

    It’s indeed very ironic, but Susan quite strikingly exemplifies this attitude. Even just raising these issues resulted in her questioning the moral character of those with a position opposite to her. This behaviour is not at all uncommon in academic settings, and tends to result in a stifling of genuine debate.”

    Support your comment, please.

  • Thursday1

    Your impugning of people’s characters is neither godly nor loving nor fair. Take a look in the mirror.

  • Thursday1

    Your mere disagreement was not the issue. Your personal attack on Alistair was.

  • Thursday1


  • Susan_G1

    And how did I impugn anyone’s character, anyway. Is calling a closed minded bigot a closed minded bigot impugning his character? Impugning means to dispute the truth or honesty of a thing, not pointing it out.

  • Thursday1

    And how did I impugn anyone’s character, anyway. Is calling a closed minded bigot a closed minded bigot impugning his character?


  • RJS4DQ


    I don’t have Staples book, but Steele’s quote is on p. 6 of Whistling Vivaldi. My interpretation came from this quote:

    I tried to be innocuous but didn’t know how. … I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked. … Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it.My whistle was pure and sweet – and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The tension drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

    Now I interpreted this as happening upon whistling as a solution to his problem – more or less accidentally. “Out of nervousness” Would you interpret it differently – and if so, why?

  • Susan_G1

    point made. you do not know the meaning of the word impugn.

  • Thursday1

    The dictionary says “call into question” as in call someone’s character into question. Nice try.

  • Thursday1


  • Susan_G1

    You have a direct quote from Brent. That trumps my quotes from Steele. Steele has changed that story since then. My apologies.

    Edited to add, I just re-read page six, and you are correct. It is I who have misinterpreted the quote. See page 7 where Steele interprets what Brent did. It was this, and subsequent statements he made, that I remembered. My sincere apologies. You were correct.

  • Thursday1

    BTW, I’d like to really thank RSJ for disagreeing without calling people bigots or chauvinists.

  • Susan_G1

    It’s ironic that on other posts, you’ve espoused love and criticized passive aggressiveness. Anyone who reads RJS posts already knows this about her.

  • Susan_G1

    it is only impugning someone if it is dishonest.

  • Thursday1

    Said the person who goes around calling people bigots and chauvinists..

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Thanks for the response, RJS.

    Yes, men sometimes don’t want to face challenges come from women. However, this isn’t such a problematic issue because men are expected to stick up for themselves and aren’t typically protected from such challenges. That said, it is unfair to put anyone in the double-bind position of being an ‘overdog’.

    I quite disagree that the problem here is simply the mentality of men. I have witnessed a few too many situations where women who haven’t been able to manage the rough discourse of academia have prevented a group from engaging in it, either by creating problematic situations where people rush to protect, or by playing the wounded offence card.

    It should be noted that my original point was just that the stereotype that men operate under is liberating for groups in such cases, not that women should be excluded from such groups. I have known many, many women who have proved themselves well able to operate as peers in such contexts. However, on account of the liberating stereotype, it can be much easier to treat men as peers in such a manner without risk. I fear that it is being presumed that I am saying more than I actually was.

    The problems here are most pronounced in the humanities, especially where feminist theory and the like have a big influence. This has led to subjects being hedged around with countless sensitivities, producing the sort of sacred cows, and unquestioned groupthink that Thursday describes. The sort of hyper-sensitivity that is created around women’s voices in such contexts (and not just on explicitly feminist subjects) really does have the effect of closing down discourse.

    And this is even more pronounced in non-academic contexts where people are less equipped for truly challenging discourse. For instance, this conversation is a case in point. In the spirit of an illuminating discourse, where ideas have to prove their mettle and aren’t just given a free pass, I raise a number of points arguing that stereotypes have their place and value. I show willingness to engage with any responses. However, I am immediately subjected to a personal attack from Susan, without any real attempt to engage with my points. The impression was given that my comments were misogynistic or bigoted, without serious engagement with their substance. Unfortunately, few people truly engage as you have, RJS.

    This is a pattern that I have witnessed on literally innumerable occasions, so much so that it grows tiresome. The typical result is the collapse of the discourse and the placing of certain beliefs off limits for academic challenge. I will usually find myself stigmatized and attacked for triggering sensitivities in the first place. One feels that such discourses often masquerade as academic, but aren’t prepared to pay their dues. And I am almost entirely sure that pduggie and Thursday share my experience here.

    Can you not see how this might have the effect of stultifying true challenging discourse? Where people can’t stand up to testing discourse on subjects that they feel sensitive concerning and where they are prepared to leverage their sensitivities, victimhood, or vulnerabilities to receive protection from questioning, we end up with all sorts of subjects that are closed off from genuine academic examination. The worst examples tend to cluster in areas like Women’s Studies, but many of us experience similar effects elsewhere in the humanities.

    Academia, because of the rough interactions that it requires, fails to operate well where people are allowed to enjoy a sort of status of victimhood or vulnerability. Yet this is rife in some quarters and isn’t so easy to extricate from a widespread form of female involvement in certain disciplines.

  • Susan_G1

    I cannot imagine how someone as seemingly intelligent as you are can fail to see the chauvinism inherent in your discourse. It is simply stunning.

    Numerous studies (in the UK and US) have shown that women are safer, more careful physicians than men. Men are 10 times more likely to have their licenses suspended for inadequate care. Patients of female doctors are much less likely to die from preventable medical errors; women are less often involved in malpractice suits (significantly so, even when correcting for specialty, years in practice, time spent in practice yearly, etc.), and patients self report much higher levels of satisfaction with female physicians than male. Two of the most common underlying issues are male arrogance and lack of empathy. So, should admission committees decide between two otherwise equal candidates based on gender? I should hope not, because statistics are not people. Males have as much of a right to be physicians as females (although we females have not benefited from the reverse sentiment until relatively recently).

    Men don’t play the “wounded offence” card?

    However, I am immediately subjected to a personal attack from Susan, without any real attempt to engage with my points. The impression was given that my comments were misogynistic or bigoted, without serious engagement with their substance… Unfortunately, few people truly engage as you have, RJS.

    Please. First, I never called you bigoted or mysogynistic. what I said was “I find your approach to be supremely self-centered. It is also arrogant.” I also stated, “Your comments are condescending and chauvinistic.” I stand by those statements, and think you have given them more support. What you further infer is not under my control.

    I will further reiterate that real people are hurt, even killed, due to held stereotypes.

    Your appeal to people like Thursday for confirmation is telling.

    RJS, I’m sorry to bring discord to your usually amicable and thoughtful blog site. I hope you do not misinterpret it as disrespect for you or the tone you set here.

    Subtlety concerning foolish remarks has never been my strong suit.