Emotions, Unconscious Bias, and Publishing

18 October 2017, 0721 EDT

This is a guest post by Jana von Stein, Senior Lecturer, Political Science and International Relations Programme, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)

The recent scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse and harassment of dozens of women has gotten me thinking about an experience I had not too long ago. To be sure, there are differences: what happened to me was not sexual, my suffering was short-lived, and I sought justice. But there were at least two important similarities: my experience was deeply gendered and offensive, and I didn’t tell many people. Why? Because I worried about the career implications. I didn’t want the many good and decent men in my field to perceive me as a male-basher.

But I’ve decided to share this, in the hope that others (men, women, and those who don’t perceive themselves as falling into either camp) will feel less alone if it happens to them. I also hope they will feel empowered to step forward, if only because it might prevent future abuses. I can’t help but wonder whether Weinstein could’ve been stopped in his tracks a decade or so ago, if only his victims – some of whom had well-established careers long ago – had told their stories earlier.

So here is what happened. A journal editor (it really doesn’t matter who, and it isn’t possible to tell from my CV) advised me that my use of the first person made my paper “seem like an emotional rather than an academic” piece. By way of background, readers should know two things. First, it is very common in my field to write in the first person, so the premise that my writing was more ‘emotional’ than that of a man struck me as prima face … uh … wacko. What’s more, I quickly noted, male writers in the journal used the first person just as readily and had not, as far as I knew, been accused of ‘emotional’ writing.

Truth be told, I am an emotional person. I wear my heart on my sleeve and hope the world will benefit a tiny bit from my willingness to embrace that sensitivity in certain contexts. But I am also an analyst. And when my academic hat is on, rationality and scientific rigor prevail. This approach to my work is not uncommon. Cancer researchers no doubt want desperately to find a cure because they care about ending suffering and death. But when it comes time to design studies and test medications, the emotional attachment to that goal moves to the background. Many of us have an emotional attachment to what we study, but are fully capable of separating that from the scientific and the rational.

Whether women are more emotional, express more emotions, or just express different emotions than men (on average) is a subject of huge and fascinating debate. But that’s not really relevant to the discussion here. Instead, I want to grapple with the question of how, in the 21st century, it is (still!) possible for women who produce the same work as men to be dismissed as “too emotional,” “not as good,” and so on.

Outright misogyny is one potential explanation. The perception that women just aren’t as good at math and science, for instance, continues to saturate the STEM disciplines. Another potential explanation is unconscious bias. If you haven’t read the PNAS study showing that science faculty, presented with two otherwise identical CVs, were more likely to rate the male candidate as competent and hireable, you should. (They also offered significantly lower salaries to women with the same CVs). Similar findings emerge in studies of leader evaluation, teaching feedback, and even business loans. This is only a part of the iceberg. Racial and other types of bias are also pervasive.

I was probably a victim of unconscious bias. That, anyhow, is my hope.

I sought advice from a few peers. The most alienating and dismissive response I received was “oh well … see how it goes.” It made me believe I was going overboard – being too “emotional.” Fortunately, most of the people I contacted agreed that I was unfairly treated, and should do something about it. I contemplated withdrawing altogether, but a dear mentor advised that there was no reason I should punish myself in such a way.

Ultimately, I lodged a complaint with the editorial board. It took up a lot of time and emotional (yes, emotional!) energy. In time, I obtained a full apology and – more importantly – received assurances that the editorial board would keep an eye out for such offenses in the future. I hope it does. It was a minor piece of work, so in the grand scheme of publication, it’s unimportant. The sting of “oh well … see how it goes” still festers – and it’s still a lot stronger than the satisfaction of ‘justice.’

More broadly, this experience has gotten me thinking more about unconscious bias. I believe that most academics are good and decent humans who want to value each scholar for his/her work, not for his/her biology. But unconscious bias is a hard beast to tame. We are all guilty of it. Oftentimes, combatting it requires an awareness of one’s actions (because the unconscious is so hard to master). Do you interrupt women job candidates more? Do men make up half of your class roster, but dominate 90% of the discussion time? Do you appoint only men to leadership positions? You’re definitely not alone. Acknowledging that these biases exist even among people who genuinely believe in equality is part of the battle. Historically underprivileged people also need to acknowledged their own prejudices: anyone who assumes that a white heterosexual man got the job just because he is a white heterosexual man is guilty of unconscious bias.

If any of you — whatever your color, creed, sexual identity, whatever — have experienced biased treatment of the type I’ve described, I encourage you to step up, if only to protect future victims. It’s not a witch hunt. Sometimes it can just be a constructive dialog with someone who hadn’t even noticed his/her bias.