Given how much research there is to tell us that intrinsic bias is having a terrifying effect on hiring decisions and opportunity, it’s great to have some good news to report when a company decides to address the issue.
Deloitte U.K are going to start using a school-blind approach in its hiring process (WaPo link), which will potentially benefit thousands of school- and college-leavers who would have been perceived to come from “less suitable” educational pedigrees. They are also planning to work out how students performed relative to their peers in a given school, rather than against broad district or national levels. Deloitte are now part of a growing group of companies who have moved beyond “Am I getting the best people” to understanding that their biassed perception of best may be preventing them from seeing some candidates at all. They could be picking their “best” from a much broader range of better, if only they’d address those biases.
This is certainly not going to end bias overnight (there are so many other issues to address) but it’s a great start.
Walidah Imarisha very generously continued the discussion of my last piece with me on Twitter and I have updated that piece to include her thoughts and to provide vital additional discussion. As always, don’t read me talking about things when you can read the words of the people who are out there fixing, changing the narrative, fighting and winning.
Thank you, Walidah!
The Only Way Forward is With No Names @iamajanibrown @WalidahImarisha #afrofuturism #worldcon #sasquanPosted: August 23, 2015
Edit: Walidah Imarisha and I had a discussion in Twitter after I released this piece and I wanted to add her thoughts and part of our discussion. I’ve added it to the end so that you’ll have context but I mention it here because her thoughts are the ones that you must read before you leave this piece. Never listen to me when you can be listening to the people who are living this and fighting it.
I’m currently at the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington state. As always, my focus is education and (no surprise to long term readers) equity. I’ve had the opportunity to attend some amazing panels. One was on the experience of women in art, publishing and game production of female characters for video gaming. Others were discussing issues such as non-white presence in fiction (#AfroFuturism with Professor Ajani Brown) and a long discussion of the changes between the Marvel Universe in film and comic form, as well as how we can use Science Fiction & Fantasy in the classroom to address social issues without having to directly engage the (often depressing) news sources. Both the latter panels were excellent and, in the Marvel one, Tom Smith, Annalee Flower Horne, Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Professor Brown, there was a lot of discussion of both the new Afro-American characters in movies and TV (Deathlok, Storm and Falcon) as well as how much they had changed from the comics.
I’m going to discuss what I saw and lead towards my point: that all assessment of work for its publishing potential should, where it is possible and sensible, be carried out blind, without knowledge of who wrote it.
I’ve written on this before, both here (where I argue that current publishing may not be doing what we want for the long term benefit of the community and the publishers themselves) and here, where we identify that systematic biases against people who are not western men is rampant and apparently almost inescapable as long as we can see a female name. Very recently, this Jezebel article identified that changing the author’s name on a manuscript, from female to male, not only included response rate and reduced time waiting, it changed the type of feedback given. The woman’s characters were “feisty”, the man’s weren’t. Same characters. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being sexist or not, it doesn’t even matter (from the PNAS study in the second link) if you’re a man or a woman, the presence of a female name changes the level of respect attached to a work and also the level of reward/appreciation offered an assessment process. There are similar works that clearly identify that this problem is even worse for People of Colour. (Look up Intersectionality if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I’m not saying that all of these people are trying to discriminate but the evidence we have says that social conditioning that leads to sexism is powerful and dominating.
Now let’s get back to the panels. The first panel “Female Characters in Video Games” with Andrea Stewart, Maurine Starkey, Annalee Flower Horne, Lauren Roy and Tanglwyst de Holloway. While discussing the growing market for female characters, the panel identified the ongoing problems and discrimination against women in the industry. 22% of professionals in the field are women, which sounds awful until you realise that this figure was 11% in 2009. However, Maurine had had her artwork recognised as being “great” when someone thought her work was a mans and “oh, drawn like a woman” when the true owner was revealed. And this is someone being explicit. The message of the panel was very positive: things were getting better. However, it was obvious that knowing someone was a woman changed how people valued their work or even how their activities were described. “Casual gaming” is often a term that describes what women do; if women take up a gaming platform (and they are a huge portion of the market) then it often gets labelled “casual gaming”.
So, point 1, assessing work at a professional level is apparently hard to do objectively when we know the gender of people. Moving on.
The first panel on Friday dealt with AfroFuturism, which looks at the long-standing philosophical and artistic expression of alternative realities relating to people of African Descent. This can be traced to the Egyptian origins of mystic and astrological architecture and religions, through tribal dances and mask ceremonies of other parts of Africa, to the P.Funk mothership and science-fiction works published in the middle of vinyl albums. There are strong notions of carving out or refining identity in order to break oppressive narratives and re-establish agency. AfroFuturism looks into creating new futures and narratives, also allowing for reinvention to escape the past, which is a powerful tool for liberation. People can be put into boxes and they want to break out to liberate themselves and, too often, if we know that someone can be put into a box then we have a nasty tendency (implicit cognitive bias) to jam them back in. No wonder, AfroFuturism is seen as a powerful force because it is an assault on the whole mean, racist narrative that does things like call groups of white people “protesters” or “concerned citizens”, and groups of black people “rioters”.
(If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen a fair bit of this. If you’re not following me on Twitter, @nickfalkner is the way to go.)
So point 2, if we know someone’s race, then we are more likely to enforce a narrative that is stereotypical and oppressive when we are outside of their culture. Writers inside the culture can write to liberate and to redefine identity and this probably means we need to see more of this.
I want to focus on the final panel, “Saving the World through Science Fiction: SF in the Classroom”, with Ben Cartwright, Ajani Brown (again!), Walidah Imarisha and Charlotte Lewis Brown. There are many issues facing our students on a day-to-day basis and it can be very hard to engage with some of them because it is confronting to have to address your own biases when you talk about the real world. But you can talk about racism with aliens, xenophobia with a planetary invasion, the horrors of war with apocalyptic fiction… and it’s not the nightly news. People can confront their biases without confronting them. That’s a very powerful technique for changing the world. It’s awesome.
Point 3, then, is that narratives are important and, with careful framing, we can discuss very complicated things and get away from the sheer weight of biases and reframe a discussion to talk about difficult things, without having to resort to violence or conflict. This reinforces Point 2, that we need more stories from other viewpoints to allow us to think about important issues.
We are a narrative and a mythic species: storytelling allows us to explain our universe. Storytelling defines our universe, whether it’s religion, notions of family or sense of state.
What I take from all of these panels is that many of the stories that we want to be reading, that are necessary for the healing and strengthening of our society, should be coming from groups who are traditionally not proportionally represented: women, People of Colour, Women of Colour, basically anyone who isn’t recognised as a white man in the Western Tradition. This isn’t to say that everything has to be one form but, instead, that we should be putting systems in place to get the best stories from as wide a range as possible, in order to let SF&F educate, change and grow the world. This doesn’t even touch on the Matthew Effect, where we are more likely to positively value a work if we have an existing positive relationship with the author, even if said work is not actually very good.
And this is why, with all of the evidence we have with cognitive biases changing the way people think about work based on the name, that the most likely approach to improve the range of stories that we will end up publishing is to judge as many works as we can without knowing who wrote it. If we wanted to take it further, we could even ask people to briefly explain why they did or didn’t like it. The comments on the Jezebel author’s book make it clear that, with those comments, we can clearly identify a bias in play. “It’s not for us” and things like that are not sufficiently transparent for us to see if the system is working. (Apologies to the hard-working editors out there, I know this is a big demand. Anonymity is a great start. 🙂 )
Now some books/works, you have to know who wrote it; my textbook, for example, depends upon my academic credentials and my published work, hence my identify is a part of the validity of academic work. But, for short fiction, for books? Perhaps it’s time to look at all of the evidence and to look at all of the efforts to widen the range of voices we hear and consider a commitment to anonymous review so that SF&F will be a powerful force for thought and change in the decades to come.
Thank you to all of the amazing panellists. You made everyone think and sent out powerful and positive messages. Thank you, so much!
Edit: As mentioned above, Walidah and I had a discussion that extended from this on Twitter. Walidah’s point was about changing the system so that we no longer have to hide identity to eliminate bias and I totally agree with this. Our goal has to be to create a space where bias no longer exists, where the assumption that the hierarchical dominance is white, cis, straight and male is no longer the default. Also, while SF&F is a great tool, it does not replace having the necessary and actual conversations about oppression. Our goal should never be to erase people of colour and replace it with aliens and dwarves just because white people don’t want to talk about race. While narrative engineering can work, many people do not transfer the knowledge from analogy to reality and this is why these authentic discussions of real situations must also exist. When we sit purely in analog, we risk reinforcing inequality if we don’t tie it back down to Earth.
I am still trying to attack a biased system to widen the narrative to allow more space for other voices but, as Walidah notes, this is catering to the privileged, rather than empowering the oppressed to speak their stories. And, of course, talking about oppression leads those on top of the hierarchy to assume you are oppressed. Walidah mentioned Katherine Burdekin & Swastika Nights as part of this. Our goal must be to remove bias. What I spoke about above is one way but it is very much born of the privileged and we cannot lose sight of the necessity of empowerment and a constant commitment to ensuring the visibility of other voices and hearing the stories of the oppressed from them, not passed through white academics like me.
Seriously, if you can read me OR someone else who has a more authentic connection? Please read that someone else.
Walidah’s recent work includes, with adrienne maree brown, editing the book of 20 short stories I have winging its way to me as we speak, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements” and I am so grateful that she took the time to respond to this post and help me (I hope) to make it stronger.
I’m (still) in the middle of writing a large summary of my thoughts on education and how can we develop a better way to provide education to as many students as possible. Unsurprisingly, this is a large undertaking and I’m expecting that the final document will be interesting and fairly controversial. I suspect that one of the major problems will stem from things that I believe that we have to assume are true. Now this is always challenging, especially where evidence is lacking, but the reason that I present for some of these things to be held as true is that, if we hold them as false, then we make them false as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may not be purely because of our theoretical framework but it may be because of what we do in implementation when we implicitly declare that something no longer needs to be worried about.
I am looking to build a better Machine for Education but such a thing is always built on the assumption that better is something that you can achieve.
The reason for making these assumptions of truth is very simple. When I speak of a “Machine for Education”, I am not moving towards some cyberpunk dystopian future, I am recognising that we are already all embedded inside a framework that turns human energy into educational activity, it’s just that the current machine places stress upon its human components, rather than taking the strain in its mechanical/procedural/technological elements. An aeroplane is a machine for flying and it works because it does not require constant human physical effort simply to keep it in the air. We have replaced the flapping wings of early designs with engines, hydraulics, computers and metal. The reason an aeroplane is a good machine is because the stress is taken on the machine itself, which can take it, with sensible constructions of human elements around it that make it a manageable occupation. (When we place airline workers under undue stress, we see the effect on the machine through reduced efficiency in maintenance and decision making, so this isn’t a perfect system.) Similarly, the development of the driverless car is a recognition of two key facts: firstly, that most cars spend most of their time not being driven and, secondly, that the activity of driving for many people is a chore that is neither enjoyable nor efficiently productive. The car is a good machine where most of the wear happens in the machine but we can make it better as a transport device by further removing the human being as a weak point, as a stress accumulator and as a part of the machine that gets worn down but is not easy to repair or rebuild. We also make the machine more efficient by potentially reducing the number required, given the known usage patterns. (Ultimately, the driverless car is the ultimate micro-light urban transit system.)
So what are these assumptions of truth?
- That our educational system can always be improved and, hence, is ready for improvement now.
It has always surprised me when some people look at dull and lifeless chalk-and-talk, based on notes from 20 years ago, and see no need for improvement, instead suggesting punitive measures to force students to sit and pretend to listen. We have more evidence from research as to what works than we have ever had before and, in conjunction with centuries of careful thought, have a great opportunity to make change.
- That everyone on the planet can benefit from an improved educational system. Yes, this means that you have to assume that, one day, we could reach everyone on the planet. We cannot assume that a certain group can be ignored and then move on. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it all has to happen tomorrow but it does mean that any planning for extending our systems must have the potential to reach everyone in the country of origin and, by extension, when we have every country, we have the world.
- That an educational system can develop students in terms of depth of knowledge and skills but also in terms of their scholarship, breadth of knowledge, and range of skills.
We currently focus heavily on training for quite narrowly specified professions in the general case and we do this to the detriment of developing the student as a scholar, as a designer, as a thinker, as a philosopher, as an artist and as a citizen. This will vary from person to person but a rich educational grounding is the foundation for better things in later life, more flexibility in work and the potential for more creativity and autonomy in leisure. Ultimately, we want our graduates to be as free to create as they are to consume, rather than consigning them to work in tight constraint.
- That we can construct environments where all students can legitimately demonstrate that they have achieved the goals of the course. This is a very challenging one so I’ve worded it carefully. I have a problem with curve grading, as everyone probably knows, and it really bothers me that someone can fail because someone else passed. I also think that most of our constraints are highly artificial and they are in place because this is what we did before. If we start from the assumption that we can construct a system where everyone can legitimately pass then we change the nature of the system we build.
- That all outcomes in an educational system can be the combination of personal actions and systemic actions, thus all outcomes must be perceived and solutions developed through both lenses.
So students are handing in their work late? This assumption requires us to look across all of their activity to work out why this is happening. This behaviour may have been set in place earlier on in their educational career so this is a combination of the student activity triggers of value, motivation and instrumentality and a feedback system that is part of an earlier component of the educational system. This does not absolve the student of questionable practices or ‘anti-educational’ behaviour but it requires us to not immediately assume that they are a ‘bad student’ as an easy out.
Ultimately, these are just some of the things I’m looking out and I’m sure that there will be discussion in the comments but I have set these to stop the shortcut thinking that does not lead to a solution because it pushes the problem to a space where it does not have to be solved. If we start from the assumption of no bad students then we have to collect actual evidence to the contrary that survives analysis and peer review to locate where the help needs to be given. And this is very much my focus – support and help to bring people back to a positive educational experience. It’s too easy to assume things are false when it makes the job easier – as well absent a very human response for an over-worked sector. I think it’s time to plant some flags of assumed truths to change the way we talk and think about these things.