Thursday, February 14, 2019

Was unconscious bias really that unconscious?


                                                                             Image from Shutterstock

I quickly took my seat in the big auditorium as the previous conference session had concluded late. Five smart, qualified researchers as indicated by their published biographies in the conference pack were sitting behind a table to present in turn on the topic of psychologically healthy workplaces. One by one they were introduced by the MC for that session. The audience was quiet and attentive as each presenter came to the podium to present their 15 minute piece, followed by the next introduction and the next speaker presentation. I noted on entry the panel was quite gender imbalanced. Four women, one man. Beyond registering the fact of the imbalance and that the male presenter was to speak last I thought no more of it. That is, until the last speaker was invited to present.

The MC proceeded to introduce the last (male) speaker like a quiz show host in Las Vegas. The introduction was three times longer and seemingly more impressive than any that were made previously. As a professional speaker I would say confidently that the way the fifth speaker was introduced, both in style and content, was designed intentionally to precipitate a round of applause. Which he got. Because it was shamelessly engineered by the MC. Please understand, I would have thought nothing of this except for the fact that the introductions of the first four (female) speakers were entirely different. The MC had deftly introduced and thanked them in the most low key, almost cursory of ways. I knew it was the contrast I found stark and jarring.

I then silently reproached myself for overreacting. I reminded myself the final speaker was accomplished, more experienced and had undoubtedly contributed a lot to the field. It was probable the MC knew this well.

But that doesn't explain why the MC then name-dropped several distinguished male researchers in the audience and asked them to approach the floor microphone to challenge the fourth woman's research. One male doyen appeared extremely embarrassed and while he did ask a question, did so graciously. The others, chests puffed out, did accept the invitation and proceeded to poke holes in her research methodology, findings or both.

Again, I chided myself on a potential overreaction given I work in this space. I told myself it didn't happen to me. The presenter voiced no objection and perhaps I had perceived something that wasn't there. After the third "world authority" on the subject took his seat, I realised I had not imagined what happened. The speaker who had been the subject of several bouts of critical and public feedback looked visibly crushed.

To add insult to injury, when it came time for other questions from the floor, the MC advised that because we "had already picked on (Presenter Four) enough" she would not be responding to any further questions; thereby effectively silencing her for the remainder of the discourse.

I went up to her privately after the session finished and told her I thought she had been very gracious in her response to the questions from the floor. She said she was very appreciative that I had approached her and volunteered she had found the experience quite bruising.

For the sake of full disclosure, I must declare that I saw the MC pat some of the female panellists on the arm afterwards and tell them "they were good". I am sure he believed he was being encouraging and complimentary.

I later spoke of my disappointment to a senior conference organiser who encouraged me to give some feedback to the MC. I saw him twice more after that day but there were always other people around him. I do wonder how he would have received any respectful and well-intentioned feedback on what I believe I saw and heard that day. I would like to believe he would have been gracious and tried to ensure he did not do something similar again.

There are so many men and women out there intent on trying to redress the historical imbalance that includes indirect discrimination. I applaud my male speaker buddies who have said publicly they will turn down symposia, panels and conference keynotes if women are not on the card. But balancing the numbers does not preclude differential/inequitable treatment. Unconscious bias has no easy antidote.

In an ideal world this would not have happened. But if it did, what might we hope for?
  1. That the MC would receive private, balanced and respectful feedback and learn from it.
  2. That the feedback might come from any number of sources other than the recipient of the unwelcome attention who might be rationalised as "precious", "fragile" "overly sensitive" or worse, "ungracious" for the opportunity she'd been given.

Who might call out such behaviour if not the recipients themselves? Upstanders not bystanders.
  1. Her female colleagues who should not have to feel grateful for being asked to present nor frightened of being "ungracious" themselves or "difficult to work with"
  2. The male speaker who was treated differently (read that as better) who could have told his colleague more safely and collegiately than anyone else how he experienced the disparity in treatment (To be fair this may have happened)
  3. By the other "world authorities" who faced their own moment of truth when they were invited to critique the presenter publicly
  4. And by conference organisers who might take such feedback on board and make more adroit MC choices to further the cause of equality, not just for women but for all minority groups.

Equity of access does not automatically mean equity of outcomes. And for all invited speakers given an opportunity to showcase their contributions to any field, they should be able to do so without any aftertaste from actions however unintentional that detract from the original strategic intent and distract from key messages.

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