Last night I was in one of those hip Manhattan restaurants where the tables are crammed so close together you are basically on top of the neighboring party. At the table next to me, four women talked about their college lives. My immediate reaction was to be annoyed. They seemed like a group of giggling, frivolous, pretty girls talking about nothing.
Except they weren't.
I caught more of their conversation and realized they were having a fairly serious academic discussion. But I originally saw a group of young women together and immediately assumed that they were vapid. I spent the rest of the night being ashamed of my own instincts.
This is unconscious bias. It's one of the most pernicious ways women are held back in their professional lives.
In the New York Times Wednesday, Justin Wolfers wrote about how female economists tend to get overlooked in the media, likely because of unconscious bias.
In a recent article, Adam Davidson wrote that “Lawrence Katz, a professor at Harvard and a leading scholar of education economics, co-wrote a paper a few years ago with Claudia Goldin...” Professor Katz’s apparently uncredentialed co-author in that case was also a professor at Harvard, a leading scholar of education economics, a recent president of the American Economic Association and one of America’s most important economic historians. Moreover, Ms. Goldin was actually the first author on the paper, a fact that the public or journalists may not pay much attention to, but one that matters greatly in the academic guild.
Similarly, writes Wolfers, political activist Ralph Nader recently suggested that the head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, get advice about monetary policy from her husband, who is also an economist, but not one who specializes in monetary policy.
This happens all the time, and it doesn't just affect economists. It's everywhere.
A few years ago, the statistician Andrew Gelman wrote about a study that showed the gender of people's children affects how those people view political issues. The study yielded a variety of results, but most of the news around it focused on how having a daughter changes people's perceptions. Why, he asked, were daughters singled out? It's something I never would have noticed. But Gelman did:
Lots of discussion of how having a girl might affect your attitudes on abortion, not so much discussion about how having a boy might affect your attitudes on issues such as gun control or war, which disproportionately affect young men. This is a real problem, when issues of girls and boys, men and women, are treated asymmetrically.
The way that we speak, write and even think about women and girls matters.The problem is it's so ingrained in our culture it's hard to notice that anything is going on unless you are specifically looking for it.
This matters not only because it casually demotes women at the tops of their fields, but because it's also how we teach our children to think and speak and act.
The upside? Once you know what to look out for, it's no longer unconscious. And visible bias is much easier to avoid.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed Ralph Nader's statement to Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul.