Monday, October 27, 2014

Implicit Bias in Academic Service Expectations

I recently came across Brian Weatherson's excellent post from earlier in the year on "very junior [female] faculty doing demanding administrative tasks [...] at the level of workload of being a chair of a search committee."  He continues:
It is possible in principle that these faculty could be getting enough teaching relief that they have as much time for research as any other junior faculty. Even if so, I think it would be better to be teaching than doing admin. Teaching advanced courses is good for research, teaching lower level courses gives you re-usable teaching materials, and generally teaching is good training for teaching. No one cares how well you administrate; they do care how well you teach. In short, generous teaching reductions would make these administrative assignments less horrible, but wouldn’t I think make them acceptable.

There has been a growing awareness in recent years of the harms done by gendered implicit bias in academic hiring/recruitment. It would be good to see this awareness extend further in scope, to encompass the (all-too-familiar to many) harms of gendered implicit bias in service expectations and workloads.

To add to Weatherson's anecdata, back when I was in the U.S., I was aware of a particularly egregious case of a newly-hired (and again, female) philosopher who was immediately assigned to a demanding administrative task of the sort Weatherson describes, with no teaching relief granted whatsoever (in marked disparity to the situations of more senior faculty members with comparable administrative burdens).

Hopefully that's not at all representative of the situations in philosophy departments more generally, but I get the sense that less extreme gender disparities remain unfortunately common, so it is a risk that we should all take special care to be aware of. The Guardian highlighted an important study on "structural ingratitude" last year:
No matter what profession a woman works in, she's actually in the service profession.
That's the upshot of an illuminating (and to many, enraging) new Columbia Business School study highlighted this week, showing that co-workers and bosses feel entitled to favors from women – or, in fact, that almost everything a woman does at work is considered "a favor" that is off the clock. To put it another way, when a woman takes on a project no one else will, or does something helpful or thoughtful, it's seen as something she does for fun. When a man does it, it [is] seen as real work.
The revelation of this structural ingratitude explains a lot...

Read the whole thing!


  1. While I do know of cases of grad students being treated in this way by very elderly faculty I find repeating these accusations quite worrisome.

    Of course we should ask if this is a problem but we all know that the publication bias effect here is so large as to make any study virtually useless. My priors/ancedotes do suggest that woman are more likely to end up doing service work but you know damn well the probability you would have heard of any study that simply didn't find a difference in favors is 0 so don't pretend this is evidence. Besides, between self-reporting biases, possibility that men are just bigger assholes or remind people they did favors more there are so many alternative narratives that talking about a study just dresses up what should be a pure argument on plausibility.


    What upsets me so much about this isn't that there isn't a genuine problem here but the dogmatic line that the problem exists primarily at the office where it's pure gender discrimination that causes different treatment.

    No one wants to address the underlying social factors that guarantee unequal treatment. For instance, I'm one of the few people I know anywhere who attacks women in political/social/moral/philosophical arguments at a party or social event just as vociferously as men. The reaction by both women and men is that I need to stop being mean. I'm not complaining, it isn't a hardship, but it is proof of a larger cultural failing where we tell women that they need not and should not be as verbally aggressive as men (what other message does it send when we protect them from being called foolish for their beliefs but not a guy who says the same thing?)

    I could go on and ask who is relaly enforcing these behaviors in the office but the point is made. These aren't things that can be fixed by a little different behavior in the workplace. They reflect deep seated expectations about the behaviors of both genders often stemming from our sexual preferences.

    So yah, it upsets me when I see insufficient evidence used to make people feel comfortable about the fact they married a woman who is more nice and socially graceful while they are more combative. This problem doesn't start in the workplace it starts when you choose not to date the girl who points out you aren't that smart, it starts when grown women encourage their daughters to cooperate with other women and their boys to compete.

    Rather than exposing discrimination this kind of piece lets the worst perpetrators of it feel smug even as their choices in who to date and what they view as polite cause the problem.

    1. I'm not sure that your general complaint about talk of gender discrimination is particularly relevant to the specific practical problem discussed in my post.

      I'm not here particularly concerned about what the ultimate causes are (e.g. whether the differential treatment is due to gender per se or some other feature that correlates with gender -- though, as it happens, my observational evidence strongly supports the former -- note that when women are assertive they are often not seen as such but rather condemned as "bitchy"/"hostile").

      The important thing (for my purposes here) is just that the results of existing patterns of behaviour in academia are harmful, and people should be aware of these potential harms so that they can take care to counteract them -- perhaps by making a special effort to promote transparency in the distribution of academic service burdens, and to ask themselves questions like "Would I ask male colleague X to do this?" and "How much credit would I give male colleague X for doing this?" -- to try to minimize the risks that anyone is being given disproportionate workloads and/or not receiving adequate credit for their efforts.


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