Q & A

Here are Questions and Answers regarding the Commitment we are signing prepared by Virginia Valian, Dan Sperber, and others: 

Q.  I'd like to be clearer about what I'm committing to.  For example, I don't think it's reasonable to require a 50-50 balance of men and women for the invited speakers at every conference.
A.  Understandably.  The statement commits signers – whether as organizers or as potential invited speakers – to fairness, and fairness depends on, among other things, the availability of men and women in the pool of possible invitees.  In some cases, the pool of women (or men) is very small, so one would expect the representation of women (or men) among invited speakers also to be small. 

Q.  I'm a man and I was just invited to give a keynote.  There's only one invited speaker and I would be it.  I assume I don't have any gender responsibilities if that is the case.
A.  Well, it depends.  For example, you could be the 30th male keynote speaker in 30 years.  You won't know until you ask the organizers about past conferences (if there were any).  If there was a long history of male-only speakers, you could suggest that the group that invited you start to invite women.  You might be able to suggest women they could invite instead of you.  Or you could suggest that the organizers have two invited speakers and suggest a woman for the other spot.

Q.  I've organized conferences in the past and I've tried to invite women but they have said no.  Then there are no more women left to ask in this small field with few women.
A.  That's a tough situation.  If you've made a good-faith effort, that's all you can do.

Q.  What counts as making a good-faith effort?
In brief:
  • Set yourself the task of thinking of female names
  • Since women are overrepresented at lower prestige institutions, don't stop searching once you have exhausted the people at high-prestige institutions
  • Do a search for women's names in the relevant areas
  • Plan ahead, so that women, who might have more non-work responsibilities, have adequate time to make arrangements
  • Don't automatically structure your conference – or part of it – around an eminent man but consider building it around a woman
  • Provide adequate funding so that women, who may have fewer resources, will be able to afford to come
  • Inquire about child care needs (for both men and women).

Q.  To the best of my knowledge, I am unbiased.  I resent the idea that bias against women is at work in the invitations I make.
A.  The word "bias" here is not meant to imply deliberate bias.  Although there may be deliberate cases, those are not the ones we are concerned about.  Rather, we are concerned about the subtle, unintentional examples.  Men's names come to mind more readily than women's, leading to more invitations to men, leading to greater visibility for men, leading to yet easier availability of men's names.  Both men and women, to the same extent, tend to evaluate women more negatively than men in professional contexts.  [For the most recent example, see Moss-Racusin, C., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J.  (2012), Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.  PNAS, on line at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf+html.]  It is exactly because such evaluations occur despite a genuine explicit desire for a selection based on merit alone that it is necessary for initiatives like the present one.  Without deliberate efforts, our cognitive patterns will lead us astray.

Q.  To invite women, I would have to go slightly off-topic.
A.  In our experience, not everyone fits neatly into a program, even when they are all men or all women.  Themes are sometimes loosely adhered to.  Make sure you are not using different criteria for men and women; you don't want to require that women adhere more closely to the theme than men do.  Also, in the very choice and description of topics, you may have been influenced by the competencies and interests of the people you initially had in mind to invite. If you had thought of more women to invite, you might have ended up formulating a somewhat different but no less interesting and relevant topic. The choice of topics itself may not always be gender-neutral.

Q.  To invite women, I would have to invite younger women.
A.  Highlighting younger women might be a good thing, but try specifically thinking of older women as well.  Also consider having only younger speakers, male or female.

Q.  As a conference organizer I'm very concerned about quality of the invited speakers.
A.  Of course.  But why bring up quality in the context of gender?  We're unaware of systematic comparative data, but our own experience does not suggest that men are worse speakers than women.

Q.  It seems that ensuring better gender balance will make an already difficult task even more difficult for organizers.
A.  Yes.  By signing the statement, you agree that the extra effort will be worth it.

Q.  What might I say when I am invited to speak at a conference?
A.  Some variation of this:  "I think it's important to have a gender balance at conferences.  You probably do, too.  Could you tell me what you are doing to ensure that?"  Then you decide whether you think the organizers' efforts are adequate. You might also quote or paraphrase the Commitment you have signed, and ask whether and how accepting the invitation would be consistent with this Commitment.

Q.  I am a woman and I don't want to be invited to a conference (just) because I'm a woman.
A.  Of course not.  Such an invitation is insulting and appears to treat women as fungible.  But not being invited (just) because one is a woman is even worse, because it prevents one's work from getting star billing.  Focus on doing the best for your work.
Nor does one have to interpret being chosen on the basis of gender as an insult.  Men don't.  Women chosen on the basis of gender rate their performance more negatively than is objectively appropriate, take less credit for a positive outcome than is objectively warranted, and have less interest in continuing as a leader than do women who were supposedly chosen on the basis of ability.  In contrast, men rate their performance equally highly whether they are told their selection is based on merit or gender [Heilman, M. E., Simon, M., & Repper, D. (1987).  Intentionally favored, unintentionally harmed?  The impact of sex-based preferential selection on self-perceptions and self-evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 62-68].  Keep in mind that gender schemas cause both men and women to slightly overvalue men's accomplishments and competence and slightly undervalue women's.
An analogy with geographical distribution may be helpful.  Organizers of international conferences often make an attempt to have geographical diversity, even if it takes more time and effort.   

Q.  It may sound strange, but I'm worried that this effort could boomerang and result in even more unbalanced conferences.
A.  Actually, there is some support in the literature for that worry. [Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A., & Monin, B.  (2010). Moral self-licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.  Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/5, 344–357].   A quote from Merritt et al:  "the opportunity to disagree with blatantly sexist statements or to pick a woman for a consulting job made participants more likely to [later] describe a stereotypically masculine job as better suited for men than for women. It thus appears that the opportunity to obtain a moral license freed participants from the anxiety that goes along with making morally ambiguous decisions."  By implication, an initial failed attempt to invite women speakers could reassure organizers of their good intentions and result in their putting their major energy into inviting men speakers rather than continuing to work to invite women. Being aware of this risk should help minimize it.

Q.  Won't public accountability make it more likely that people will in fact work to promote gender balance and neutralize moral licensing?
A.  Yes, it should.

Q.  I'd like to know more about how gender schemas work.
A.  Watch Tutorials 2 and 4 at www.hunter.cuny.edu/gendertutorial.
Read Why So Slow?  The Advancement of Women, by Virginia Valian, 1998, MIT Press.

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