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No, It's Not Your Imagination; We're Biased Against Women

5 years ago
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Readers of The Washington Post recently chose a male over a female writer to be the Post's new guest pundit. That's not necessarily news, because his writing may very well be better than hers. But, the question that many of us have is this: did the winner's gender influence the judges? In other words, by identifying the gender of the writers, did the Post unintentionally conduct a biased contest?

Two classic studies would seem to suggest so.

The first is a 2000 study by economists Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecilia Rouse of Princeton on discrimination in orchestra hiring practices. Until recently, the music directors of America's greatest symphony orchestras hand-picked most of the musicians and, no surprise, nearly all of the musicians were men. But, as Goldin and Rouse report in their study, when musicians auditioned behind closed curtains, their genders hidden from the judges, the hiring results changed dramatically --- women were 50 percent more likely to advance in the selection process.
The blind audition process "fostered impartiality in hiring and increased the proportion of women in symphony orchestras," according to the study authors. Now, orchestras routinely conduct auditions behind curtains to eliminate possible gender bias, and gender numbers are now relatively equal in the orchestra world.

Second example: Emily Sands, a Princeton economics student who wrote her senior thesis under Rouse's supervision, found discrimination against female playwrights in the theater community. Sands tested for discrimination directly by sending out identical scripts, one written by authors with male names, such as Michael and George, and one written by authors with female names, such as Mary and Jennifer, to artistic directors and literary managers, asking for their reviews. The reviewers consistently rated Mary's script much more negatively than Michael's script, even though the only difference in the script was in the author's name.

The bias came from an unlikely source -- female reviewers. Women rated the woman's script more negatively than the man's script, while male reviewers showed no bias. In explaining this perplexing outcome -- why would a woman judge a fellow woman so harshly? -- Sands suggests women believe a woman's writing must be better than a man's writing just to stay even. As she wrote in her thesis, although "female respondents do not report personally believing that a script with a female pen-name is of lower quality," women believe that scripts written by women "will be perceived by the theater community to be of lower overall quality" and, therefore, will have a lower economic value than a script written by a man. Marsha Norman, a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright and co-director of the playwriting program at the Juilliard School, explained the phenomenon. "...plays by men are expected to be better even before they are seen, even before they are read-even, yes, before they are written. This is bias, pure and simple," she wrote in American Theater.

The late Ann Richards, Texas' second female governor, was quite familiar with the phenomenon. As she famously quipped at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, ". . . if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."

Joking aside, we all lose if a musician is not selected, a play is not produced -- or a pundit is not chosen -- because the artist is a woman. Rouse, now a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, knows well the implications of her research. As she told New York magazine, "[Sands] provides convincing evidence that female playwrights are not being treated equally," adding that the study ". . . suggests this sector is not as productive as it might be and the right plays aren't getting to audiences."

So, what does this research showing unintentional, but pervasive discrimination, imply about the Post's competition to find a new pundit?

The stakes were high in the competition. As the Post proclaimed, "We'll set our promising pundit on a path to become the next byline in demand, the talking head every show wants to book, the voice that helps the country figure out what's really going on."

From the 4,800 entries submitted, the Post selected 10 finalists and it then democratized the contest by allowing readers to vote for their favorite. So despite the Post's good intentions, this "democratization [did] not guarantee impartiality," according to Rouse, "because favorites could still be identified" by photo, name and resume.

It's not that the Post's readers are biased just because a man won the final competition over a woman. No, but it is possible that readers chose the winner partly on the basis of gender. As in the case of the playwrights, perhaps some of the Post's readers also hold women writers to higher standards than men writers. We don't know why a reader chose a particular author. But, we do know that based on the studies above, the male writer may have had an advantage simply because of his Y chromosome.

The Post cannot go back and change the outcome of its contest. But, if it runs the contest again, as the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt suggests it will do, it can correct the problem by presenting a "blind" audition in the final round. Below, we show how this can be done.

Read the first paragraph of each of the final two contestants' pieces below, where all identifying features have been eliminated, choose your favorite, and guess the gender of the author.

Healthy teeth, empty bank account

Being a self-employed consultant has its perks and its drawbacks. On the upside, my work follows me wherever I go, provided I have Internet access. On the downside, there is no job security and currently I have not had any paid work in four months. I am a "live within my means" kind of person, have never run up my credit cards and have always loved finding hidden treasures on the racks at Goodwill. Last month, I moved back to my parents' home. I would have walked away from my last consultancy with a modest cushion to hold me through this lull save one unanticipated cost: my teeth.

The Palin take on health-care costs

I was on Facebook the other day, yukking it up about the lamestream media and seeing which of my friends had procreated, when I came across Sarah Palin ruminating on the recent reports on mammograms and Pap smears. She wrote on her wall: "There are many questions unanswered for me, but one which immediately comes to mind is whether costs have anything to do with these recommendations."

Now, click here to find the winner.
Filed Under: Economy, Woman Up

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