Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Unearned Advantage


Unconscious bias goes hand-in-hand with the concept of unearned advantage. The two kids on the seesaw start out at the same level and can play together. As time goes by, however, one accumulates advantage and the other disadvantage. Any one slight may seem minor, but small imbalances and discrepancies accrue. Not only will they no longer be able to play together in future, but these disparities can have major consequences in salary, promotion, prestige, and advancement to leadership positions (Merton 1948; 1968).

There is no such thing as an unimportant small difference because they all add to the total. Success comes from creating and consolidating these small gains, and successful people seem to know how to take advantage of this. “Mountains are molehills piled one on top of the other” (Valian 1998).

Imagine a computer model of an organization with eight levels of hierarchy. The initial staffing is at the bottom with equal numbers of men and women. Over time, a certain percentage is promoted to next level. If we add in a bias of just 1% in favor of promoting men, then after many promotions, the top level is 65% men. That is, a 1% bias in promotions translates to a 15% difference in managers (Martell, Lane, & Emrich 1996).

There exists a “line of justice” above which is the world of unearned privilege. This creates subconscious mental attitudes of superiority and excellence. Below that line one is not “suffering from” injustice; instead, above that line, one is “free of” injustice. Our culture simply absorbs the ideas that come with being above or below the line. In the world of astronomy, are you above or below the line? If you’re not sure, read the following statements.

-I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my own race/gender most of the time.
-I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race/gender.
-I can speak in public to a powerful group of astronomers without putting my race/gender on trial.
-I am never asked to speak for all the people of my race/gender.
-I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race/gender.

If you answer “yes” to all or most of these questions, then you are above the line and benefiting from unearned advantage. How does line of justice affect women? The highest levels of all prestigious professions are occupied primarily by men. As a result, a professional woman operates within perceived discord between two schemas: female and professional (male). Therefore, women can’t be too feminine or masculine because this behavior increases a schema “mismatch,” where men are perceived as the norm against which women are measured.

Any behavior that appears to be different than the norm requires an explanation. For example, how many times have we heard recently that men negotiating for a job, raise, or promotion are assertive where women are bitchy? The behavior, tactics, and strategies of the two individuals may be exactly the same, yet the aggressive man is viewed positively, in line with the schema of a professional. The bitchy woman, however, is perceived negatively, in part because of the schema mismatch.

Most women start at a slight disadvantage when they enter a professional meeting. They are less likely to be viewed as a serious professional and their ideas are less likely to be paid attention to. If they lose prestige, it is even less likely that they will be listened to in future. One strategy is to simply remain silent and, therefore, to accrue disadvantage more slowly! This is one possible explanation for why women speak less in public/professional settings than men do (Haslett et al. 1992).

Numbers matter and critical mass affects the use of schemas. With one or a few individuals, we tend to rely on group-based schemas. But as the numbers increase, we begin to differentiate among them and not rely as heavily on schema shortcuts. Increasing the percentage of women in any pool of individuals being evaluated increases the ratings of both female applicants and female employees. See, e.g., Heilman (1980); Sackettet et al. (1991); Valian (1998).

So there is hope! Sociologists tell us that the dynamics of a group changes when an underrepresented minority reaches critical mass, that is, ~30%. For women in astronomy, some groups are already there. For example, the gender-related data from the Astro 2010 demographics report shows that ~30% of the prize postdoctoral fellowships in astronomy have gone to women for the past 20 years. If you don’t think the group dynamics of astronomy postdocs has changed in the past 20 years, then you have not been paying attention!


Haslett et al. (1992) The Organizational Woman: Power and Paradox, Ablex Publishing
Heilman (1980) Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 26: 386-395.
Martell et al. (1996) American Psychologist, 51:157-158
Merton (1948) Antioch Review, 8, 193-210
Merton (1968) Science, 159, 56-63.
Sackettet et al. (1991) Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(2): 263-267.
Valian (1998) Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Cambridge: MIT Press.