Bias is Bias, Inadvertant or Not

I recently read this tweet storm by Matt Joseph (@_mattjoseph) that made me think. Go ahead, read it first. Read all 30 of his tweets so that you understand his point.

Whether you like to admit it or not, bias is real, and the targets of negative bias end up having to work much, much harder to overcome that bias than those for whom the bias is positive. Want an example? In the classical music world, musicians would audition to fill openings in an orchestra. For such auditions the musical director and possibly one or two other senior musicians who would act as judges. They would listen to each candidate perform a piece of music so that their musical abilities could be rated, and the highest rated musicians would get the job. Pretty straightforward. Traditionally (that is, through 1970) women only made up 5% or so of most orchestras. Now it can be assumed that a musical director would want the best musicians in their orchestra, so they would not have a reason to select mostly men if women played as well. So it was commonly assumed that playing music was both artistic and athletic, and that this athletic component that gave men the edge.

However, starting in the 1970s, auditions were switched to be done blindly: the musicians performed behind a screen, and the judges only had a number to refer to them.

blind_auditionCredit: old.post-gazette.com

It should not shock you that with this change, the percentage of women in orchestras began climbing, reaching 20% by the 1990s. Given the low turnover of orchestras, this is a huge difference! There are only 2 possible explanations for such a rapid, radical change. One is that women were suddenly getting better at playing music, though there is no evidence of any additional intense training programs for female musicians at that time.

So the second, and obvious, explanation is that prior to the blind auditions, the bias of the judges influenced what they heard, and as a result, women would be scored lower. Put another way, for a woman to make it into an orchestra, she had to be much more talented than a man in order to overcome that bias and get a similar score.

That, in essence, is the point Matt was making about the state of funding for tech companies: people of color, like him,

“…had to overcome things that others in the exact same position didn’t have to. That means with equal conditions, we’d be much further.”

The flip side to this is that, given two people of equal talent, you can expect that the person subjected to these kinds of negative biases will have less to show, in terms of any measures that may be used as “objective” criteria. This includes things like grades and SAT scores for kids applying to colleges. The attempt to correct for this bias is commonly referred to as “Affirmative Action”. If you recognize that bias exists, you understand why programs like this are important. Of course, it would be better to eliminate bias altogether, right? Yeah, and be sure to tell me when someone figures out how to do that. I don’t believe it’s possible, given the tribal nature in which humans evolved. This is why devices such as the blind audition are needed, and, if that’s not possible, applying a corrective factor to compensate.

Still not convinced that steps like Affirmative Action are correct? Then please explain why minorities such as blacks and Latinos score lower on average than whites. I see only two explanations: 1) they face many more hurdles in the education system, such as poorer facilities and support systems, that prevent them from progressing as strongly, or 2) they are inherently not as smart as whites. I’m sure that if you thought that option 2 is even possible, you wouldn’t be the type of person inclined to read this far. The proof is in the stats: if a group makes up N% of the population overall, but less than N% in some selected group, you’d better be able to identify an objective reason for this difference, or you’ve got to assume bias is influencing these numbers. And it isn’t something to be ashamed of or try to deny: we all have biases that we aren’t aware of, so it simply makes sense to admit that this is the case, and try to find a way to address it to make things level.

And don’t for a moment think that this is an altruistic, touchy-feely thing to help assuage white guilt. It means that talented people who were previously overlooked will now have a better chance of contributing, making things better for all. Why wouldn’t you want the best people working for you?

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