In the discussion after my previous post on gender and philosophical intuition, Anne J. Jacobson mentioned the concept of implicit biases. Implicit biases are thought by many (including myself) to be one of the main causes for gender imbalance in philosophy. I am sure that the highly knowledgeable readership of this blog is already familiar with the concept, but let me review some of its main aspects. In my opinion, the topic is relevant not only for the social organization of the profession (affecting not only women, but many other groups of people who do not fit the stereotype of a philosopher as a white male), but also as a philosophical topic as such. It is a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely the fact that our actual reasoning and judging mechanisms seem to deviate very significantly from the traditional picture of ‘human rationality’, as widely documented by research in psychology and behavioral economics, among other areas. What are the implications of these findings for e.g. traditional epistemology? (I plan to blog on this at a future occasion.)
But now about implicit biases. The (almost) always fantastic Feminist Philosophers have compiled a ‘quick guide’ to implicit biases and how they affect the situation of women (and other under-represented groups) in philosophy, and Jennifer Saul has recently made available a very comprehensive paper on implicit biases and philosophy. Anyone who is interested in the topic and has some time to spare should definitely read Jennifer’s paper. But as time is a scarce commodity for everybody, I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the main points of the paper here. I will not bother about giving references, as they can all be found in Jennifer’s paper.
She starts by saying: “Psychological research over the last decades has shown that most people-- even those who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views-- hold what have been described as implicit biases against such groups as blacks, women, gay people, and so on. (This is true even of members of the ‘targeted’ group.)” What this means is that, while you consciously believe yourself not to judge people on the basis of their gender, skin color, religion, sexual option etc., ‘deep down’, without you even noticing it, these factors are in practice involved in your judgment of a person. What is so dangerous about implicit biases is precisely that people tend not to realize that these underlying mechanisms are doing their work, and thus tend mistakenly to think that their judgments and decisions are purely objective and neutral.
There are countless situations in which such mechanisms are triggered: classroom situations, hiring committees, refereeing of papers for journals, distribution of departmental tasks (research, teaching, admin) etc. As Jennifer Saul puts it: “Sometimes these effects are individually small but cumulatively they can have an enormous impact that serves to disadvantage members of certain groups such as women, racial and religious minorities and disabled people– to name just a few.”
One of the ways in which implicit biases can be identified is by means of a test where positive and negative words are associated with members of the targeted group and with people not belonging to the targeted group, in turns. All this has to be done very quickly, and an indicator of implicit biases is if a subject is slower in associating positive words with members of the targeted group. You can take the test yourself here. (When I took it, I was diagnosed with a ‘moderate bias’ against the targeted group I was testing for.) What is perhaps most astonishing is that members of the targeted group themselves often manifest a bias against their own group.
A crucial aspect of accepting the effect that implicit biases have in people’s judgments and decisions is to realize that *everybody* is prone to such biases, it’s just part of our cognitive make-up as humans. So there is nothing offensive in telling people that they are prone to implicit biases; it is not the same as calling them racists or sexists. In other words, there is nothing blameworthy about having implicit biases. Moreover, the specific biases that each of us has are not hard-wired in us from the start; it is simply a result of exposure. If throughout the years all we see around us are e.g. white men as politicians, we associate the concept of being a politician to white men (in a sense, it’s just a form of induction, really). What this means is that there is a considerable level of plasticity in implicit biases, and therefore that there is room for change.
Personal note: When I was a philosophy undergraduate back home in Brazil, half of my professors were women, and some of them were very strong, inspiring figures. (It might well have been a rather casual state-of-affairs; I do not want to make claims concerning systematic differences between various countries at this point.) So at the time it never occurred to me that philosophy was ‘for boys’, and now I am sure that this was crucial for me to want to pursue a career in philosophy.
In her paper, Jennifer Saul extensively discusses what does and does not work to counter implicit biases, in academia more generally and in philosophy in particular. One key element for example is anonymization. I now want to focus on one of the elements she mentions, which is directly related to the issue of keynote speakers at conferences: “exposure to counterstereotypical exemplars—members of the stigmatised group who very clearly don’t fit the negative stereotype.” She continues: “counterstereotypical examplars act as “de-biasing agents”, who help all of those around them to overcome their implicit biases, leading to more accurate judgments.”
Given how widespread the “philosophy is for (white) boys” stereotype is, it is very natural for a conference organizer to think of (white) male keynote speakers in first instance. It takes a conscious effort to overcome this first, spontaneous reaction, and to force oneself to consider the possibility of also inviting a significant number of women. However, if more and more conferences begin to feature a reasonable number of female keynote speakers (I do not think that 50% is realistic, but I think that we should strive for at least something like 30%), the (hidden) message sent out to everybody, young philosophers and more senior members of the profession alike, is that there is nothing particularly strange in being a woman and doing philosophy. Call me an optimistic, but I do think that just this fairly small change can already make a big difference in diminishing the influence of the implicit bias according to which philosophy is ‘not for girls’.
Of course, it goes without saying that, ideally, similar measures should be taken to counter implicit biases against other under-represented groups in philosophy (and elsewhere). The fact that I emphasize gender imbalance should not in any way be understood as implying a lack of concern for these other groups; but we must start somewhere, and this seems like a good place to start.