Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dramatized examples of bias: do they help?

Although bias is inescapable in human dynamics, I believe it can be recognized and partially corrected like the use of a personal equation by astronomers measuring stellar magnitudes by eye on photographic plates. Dramatized bias refers to dramatic plays that make bias plain enough for anyone to see.

Implicit or explicit bias remains a problem, and refusing to acknowledge it does not make it go away. Sometimes it is as obvious as a sexist remark in a faculty meeting, other times it is the observation by a search committee that "the candidate's research style doesn't match the department". If we're going to achieve equity for all in astronomy (and especially in physics) then implicit bias must be acknowledged and confronted in hiring, promotion, awards, etc.

Many faculty members don't like to hear this. It's the job of a department chair to ensure that equity is not ignored. The question is how to best to assist the chair in communicating these issues to faculty in a way that will be respected.

I've seen three different groups of actors present small plays highlighting implicit bias in the workplace: the Michigan CRLT players, the Harvard Bok players, and CSW Associates. Each group has professional actors who do interactive theater. The first two groups play-act a scene such as a faculty hiring or tenure committee review in which bias is clearly present. The scene is stopped, the audience discusses it, and audience members are invited to replace one of the actors to attempt a more equitable process. CSW Associates doesn't bring audience members into the play, but the actors interact strongly with the audience and reveal their inner thoughts in some powerful moments that help reveal the origins of hidden bias and the complexity of multicultural, real-world situations.

These kinds of workshops have been well received by those who attend voluntarily, or in organizations where employees or students can be "required" to attend -- for example, many business schools are using them as part of required communications and conflict resolution classes. I've certainly enjoyed and benefited from seeing these groups on multiple occasions. Have any readers seen them in astronomy departments or conferences where more than the equity advocates attended? How was that arranged? Could we bring one of these groups to a AAS meeting?