Doing/Trying Diversity

The thing, or at least, one of the things about moving a movement or an organization towards greater diversity is that it involves tradeoffs, especially initially. You are changing your current way of doing things—this is not simple.

I mean, sometimes it is, right? You make it easier to find your maternity policy, or you use gender neutral language in your application, or you stop having all your off-work events in bars. But sometimes it means writing your maternity-leave policy, or changing your working hours schedule, or having really awkward conversations over and over and over with your current employees.

I think that it is sometimes okay to decide, yes, we want this change eventually, it is important to us, but right now the tradeoff seems so costly that we cannot do it.

But decisionmakers—sincere ones!—can lose the benefit of the doubt when their public calls about the need for diversity are paired with private decisions that the tradeoffs in this case (and this one and this one) are too high.

Wanting to have a diverse organization is easy. Actually doing it is hard.

Some examples:
1) Organization Alpha works with families near the poverty line. They would really like to hire more people on the frontlines who have been there—men and women who are living pay-check to pay-check, for instance. They frequently hold career fairs during working hours, because they don’t want their current employees to have to work overtime or arrange for extra childcare.

2) Non-profit Bravo works with a predominantly-male population. However, they’re seeing a disproportionately small number of women, even taking this into account. They’d like to have more employees who are women. They do not currently have a maternity leave policy—women must accrue sick days or leave.

3) Conference Charlie is concerned about the growth of [the field]—fewer and fewer young people are getting involved. They would like to increase involvement of students, by inviting them to a three day conference full of people who are enthusiastic and dynamic speakers. The conference takes place in a city that is small, but has many [field] enthusiasts. Student tickets are half price, at $300.

Sparing the Rod, Reading the Research

[content warning: this whole article is about corporal punishment.]

Via the ever-charmingly named holygoddamnshitballs on tumblr. I saw this quoted piece from CNN.

The only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child.

Hit your partner, and you’ll be arrested for domestic violence. Hit another adult, and you’ll be arrested for assault. But hit a 4-year-old, and you can call yourself a “loving father”. That’s completely screwed up.

It should be against the law for a fully grown adult to slap, hit, spank, punch, switch, whoop, whip, paddle, kick or belt a defenseless child in the name of discipline. But it is legal, and new research in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that the average 4-year-old is hit 936 times a year.

If study after study conclusively proves that hitting your kids doesn’t work as a disciplinary method, and worse, it has long-term damaging impact to their psychology and makes your kids more aggressive, why do we as a society allow it?

And while I find corporal punishment appalling, 936 times as an average amount of violence per year seemed astronomical to me. That’s very, very frequent, or a series of very long spankings. I assumed something had gone wrong. (In my defense, people on tumblr get research wrong a lot.)

So, I tracked down the study. I sort of assumed it would be some issue of inaccurate self-report by children being extrapolated out to how many times a child was hit a year. But….actually this was a pilot study using audio recorders. (It’s worth noting that it was a small study, averaging only 12.95 hours of recording per family.) This was going to be much more accurate data then I’d have expected from spanking research at all.

Even more confusingly, each time I poked about at methods and sample, I found things that made me wonder if a larger, longer sample wouldn’t find even more instances of corporal punishment (CP in the research). The only part that might indicate a sample skewed towards higher physical punishment was that it selected for parents of 2-to-5 year olds who admitted they yelled in anger at least twice a week. Perhaps someone with a two-to-five-year-old can chime in if this seems excessively frequent? I imagine that between the Terrible Twos and still having someone dependent on you for everything, this isn’t more than one standard deviation above average.

But at the same time, consider this: the parents had some inkling that this was research about child discipline. They were interviewed over the phone prior to the research study, as well as possibly given a series of questionnaires prior to beginning the data collection. (I’m hoping the researchers waited until after, but the wording did not specify.) This makes me expect lower amounts of CP, with parents assuming that the weird psych people giving them audio recorders weren’t going to be enthusiastic about parents hitting their children.* Additionally, spanking publicly is socially frowned upon (hence, spanking in bathrooms or promising a spanking at home) and I expect that adding in audio recorders made the home seem less private. Further, the mothers were more educated than the population at large, which makes me wonder if they’re a sample with higher impulse control than average.

So, all in all, I’m leaning towards this being a fair, but possibly skewed lower than reality sample. But, a quibble in terms of reporting: the number, which is reported at Raw Story and CNN as the average number of times a four year old child is hit per year isn’t an average at all. The median number of times a child in the study was hit per week was 18, which when multiplied out, to 52 weeks, is 936 per year. (I’m unclear if in this section of the research, the writers were describing the subset of data for parents using corporal punishment, or the numbers on all parents in the study. The answer to that question would further clarify.)

The researchers noted that most parents who did use CP also failed to follow proponents’ guidelines about how to use spanking/hitting. Approximately half the time the punishment was given while audibly angry (advised against) and the vast majority—more than 90%—of the punishments were for non-serious offenses, mainly violating social norms. Most advice for parents who are going to use spanking is to use it very selectively, and only for serious offenses. (Here’s a well-respected psychologist explaining use of ‘effective’ physical punishment, for comparison.)

But most interestingly to me, 73% of children were back to misbehaving after ten minutes. This isn’t the reason I object to hitting your kids, but you can even make a fairly strong argument that it doesn’t work as a behavioral modifier, violence aside. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but on the simple end, time-outs seem like they would do better behavior-modification, if only because they remove the child from their current trajectory in a way hitting a child does not. It’s much harder to go back to bothering your sister or making a mess after you’ve been left alone in a different place for five or ten minutes.

*I mostly assume this as a result of the meme that spanking-approval is a more common conservative standpoint than liberal one, and psychologists seem to generally be assumed to be liberal.

On Beginners and Burning Out

[Unfinished version of this ended up on Facebook earlier, because blogging during class is hard to do. Second half wanders into more speculation.]

One of the things I’ve gotten very used to is that in the social circles I interact with, people react when you say ‘feminism’. There’s the flinching; the people who are waiting for the other shoe to drop, the ones who are leaning in, expecting to need to bear the brunt of anger or argument. And the people who tense, expecting some kind of conflict they’ll be trapped watching.

I’m usually in the last, group, and I’ve gotten very used to saying ‘gender things‘ where anywhere else I’d say feminism. ‘People‘ instead of ‘men’ or ‘women’. Having citations not just read, but memorized, along with holes in methodology and side discussions about confounds and alternate hypotheses.

And…it’s exhausting. But one of the things I’ve really liked about the classes I have now is that we just…don’t do that. There aren’t endless paragraphs and loops and citations and caveats that have to be run through before we can address the chilly climate effect in group therapy, or disproportionate violence risks. I think I was the only person who tensed at a question of what feminist theories the class thought were useful to bring into one-on-one practice.

This isn’t actually a blog about why you should become feminist.

I mean, I’m sure I’d be delighted if you did, but this isn’t a feminism-specific problem. Supposing people join causes for some cluster of reasons around:

1. All their friends are getting into That Cause
2. They want to educate others about That Cause
3. That Cause is some sort of learning/knowledge group. [Ex: religion, rationality, atheism, philosophy clubs, ???]

And for a long while, it’s fantastic. For 2 and 3 especially, there’s this delight in seeing other people discover the That Cause. It’s your ingroup! You’re all together! Look, even more people have joined in! It seems plausible that some small minority of people could find this sustainable and invigorating on the long term (this group probably has large overlap with the people who make good teachers and tutors). But more to the point, I think most people don’t like this. You field the same small set of questions over and over and over, and it becomes impossible to feel as thought you’re either making any kind of difference (for #2) or able to progress in your knowledge (for #3).

Wandering into slightly-more-dangerous Guessing-Land, I think this is what creates the aspects of feminism and social justice(*) that are so deeply resented. Things like “it’s not my job to educate you!” and responding to questions with anger (leading to the perception that even asking questions is treading risky waters) are commonly aspects of SJ and feminism that actively make people like the movements less…and simultaneously, they’re reactions I have so much sympathy towards.

Let’s oversimplify a bit, and presume that the only question that feminism seeks to answer is whether or not women and men are equal.  So you, New Feminist, get involved in feminism (for the purposes of this exercise, and because I’ve already slightly oversimplified, please assume you’re female). You start identifying as a feminist, and as a result start having conversations/arguments/discussions about whether or not men and women are equal. In the start, you’re fresh-faced and you care a ton about this new concept, and so you devote a ton of time to discussing. You have the emotional energy to remain chipper in the face of very angry opponents, and you’re delighted when people concede even minor parts of discussions. Even though just a small number of people you discuss with are amenable to feminism, it’s easy to be caught up in the energy. You spend a fair amount of time reading up on discussion tactics and common arguments and counterarguments.

Timeskip. It’s two years later. You’re still fielding the same questions. Both because societies rarely change on the order of months and because there happen to be a lot of people who like arguing about gender, your conversations about feminism usually start with a variant of “but women and men just aren’t equal, right?” and…it’s exhausting. You’ve gotten so accustomed to the number of objections to feminism that you can mentally categorize them, because the themes repeat. It’s really hard to get excited or happy at all when someone moves very slightly in the direction of your position, because now you’re painfully aware how many people haven’t at all. But also, you’re female, and it’s not as though you feel you can walk away. You want men and women to be equal, dammit, and when they’re not, you’re adversely impacted and you know it.

Furthermore, though you started out eager and willing to have long discussions of equality and calmly walk through each and every of your opponents points, you’ve realized that it’s mentally exhausting for you. Lots of the time, you do that and then…nothing. No visible change. And a few times, you’ve done this and then been badly burned…your words were used as representative of all that was wrong with feminism, or quoted out of context, or the person you were corresponding with explained that they weren’t actually interested in changing their mind, just wanted anti-feminist ammo. So, you’ve got some pretty awful priors for anyone who starts a conversation about feminism with you. I’d fathom that this is a similar phenomenon to what happens in helping professions, where those on the edge of burning out have a more negative perception of those they help than the average bystander. (Maslach, 2003)

And…now you’ve known for a long while that men and women ought to be equal. So you’re not getting to have the conversations that come to mind as the next step. You haven’t gotten to discuss what that would mean in terms of military service, or how to handle equality when reproduction and bodily autonomy and reproductive coercion intersect with the fact that only half the population can actually bear children. And you can’t have those conversations, because as far as you can tell, every time you start them, some bystander explains that they’re just not sure that men and women ought to be equal.

[At this point it seems necessary to point out that this hasn’t happened to me for feminism but sure as hell did happen with atheism.]

I haven’t really been able to come up with an overarching solution to this. I have a lot of sympathy for people who have been badly burned by asking a sincere question, only to be lashed out at, told they need to go educate themselves. Asking a local expert seems a heck of a lot easier than attempting to locate an explanation, sifting through better and worse ones, and not knowing which explanation of a position or term is most accurate or representative. Simultaneously I have such sympathy for people trapped in the dynamic I describe above.

I have no idea how to reconcile these.

A first step perhaps, is to acknowledge that for most people, repeatedly having intro-level discussions is exhausting and eventually unpleasant. That some spaces exist specifically to cater towards people who have taken a set of common assumptions for granted and want to have conversations that go to the edge of where those assumptions take them. That having those spaces can be an extremely important coping mechanism. That perhaps, when you and I and everyone else get caught up in causes and ideas we want to promote, we also find or create spaces that won’t regularly have new people asking old questions.


Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
* A confound here is that with feminism and social justice-ish topics, it seems plausible that there’s also an expectation of niceness combined with deep frustration with being ‘nice’ whilst not having equal treatment. I don’t think this is the entire explanation, which is how we ended up with this essay in the first place.



Bob, Alice, and Zero-Tolerance Policies

Related to: The Ambiguity Abyss.

There’s this failure mode that I think can hamstring organizers or leaders in a group that’s dominated by one demographic. Say you’re in a movement that’s dominated by men (I’m certain none of my readers have familiarity with this experience), and you are concerned about the potential for women to be made feel uncomfortable. In fact, you want to pre-empt this and signal that you don’t think it’s acceptable for harassment to occur. It won’t be tolerated, and you’d like both the women and men who get involved in your organization (or meetup group or conference) to know that you care.

So, you enact a zero-tolerance policy.

“[Organizers] has zero tolerance for harassing or inappropriate behavior towards attendees.  Behavior that makes our attendees uncomfortable will result in removal from the [conference, group, organization, meetup].”

And I think this is actually not the solution. It might be an anti-solution.

Let’s revisit Bob and Alice. (No actual relation to the Bob and Alice of the last story.)

You’lBob/Alice [standing too close version]l notice they’re standing a bit closer than the last time.

This is actually the whole problem.

1. Alice is new to Example Meetup Group*. It’s her first visit. Bob isn’t an established member of the group, but he’s been to a few meetups.

2. Bob is making Alice uncomfortable.  He keeps following her places and she’s not sure if it’s because he’s being intentionally overattentive or just doesn’t realize that she keeps turning her back on him because she doesn’t want to interact with him.

3. She’s tried some of the tricks like wandering off to the bathroom and making excuses to change position in seating arrangements. But, each time, it lasts for just a bit and then Bob’s back to joining any conversation she enters and standing right at her shoulder.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.37.25 AM4. Alice finds it hard to pluck up the social confidence for meeting people or forming connections with Bob there. Each time she joins a group conversation she’s hyperaware that she’s being perceived as part of a pair: herself and Bob. Her one-on-one conversations are interrupted by Bob butting in to stand next to her. She worries that the other meetup attendees think they have some relationship, friendship or romantic, and that she will be judged not on her own merits, but on the fact that she’s choosing to associate with someone who keeps stepping into private conversations and ignoring social norms.

5. Alice wants the organizers to make it stop so she can make actual friends and not feel like she’s being babysat.

6. But Alice also thinks Bob is effectively harmless, if clingy and totally socially unaware. She doesn’t want him thrown out of the meetup, but she does want this to stop right now and leave her alone.

7. Nor does Alice want to be the girl who caused a fuss on her first day and got that other nice-if-awkward-guy tossed out. That seems a worse social penalty than being the girl who has a shadow.

8. So, Alice doesn’t tell the organizers. Instead, she spends the meetup tense and annoyed.

9. When Alice thinks back on the meetup, she remembers being ‘creeped’ on, and doesn’t know if it’ll happen the next time she attends.  The next Tuesday evening, she considers the inconvenience of driving ten miles to go to a group where she still hasn’t made close friends and might have the same Bob problem, and decides that it might just be easier to watch Netflix. Or maybe it’s not even quite so obvious: Alice just doesn’t feel very excited when she sees the meetup notification the next month. She doesn’t have a sense of this being a group of people who could like and appreciate her, because she never got a chance to connect to anyone directly.

So…the group loses Alice.

Okay, so what if Alice had gone to the organizers and explained what was going on?

As I see it, they’d be trapped between two bad options.

Option One: They throw out Bob. They don’t like doing it, but they did say zero-tolerance, and Bob was repeatedly making Alice uncomfortable. They’re pretty sure Bob wasn’t doing so intentionally, but their hand was forced. This might make others in the group deeply upset — they’ve been socially awkward! they didn’t think Bob was trying to make Alice feel bad! They didn’t notice anything wrong! Maybe the organizers lose respect or clout, and when they try to tackle a case of someone intentionally harassing others, they’re seen as having a propensity for being hypersensitive., and it’s that much harder to act. Maybe some of the disgruntled members split off and create their own group, and the original group dies.

Option Two: They hear Alice out, and talk amongst themselves. The organizers don’t want to be seen as hating on the socially awkward, and they have seen Bob at previous meetups, and he seems to be okay. In fact, they’re pretty sure that if they talk to him, things could be resolved. So, that’s what they do. However, they’ve also demonstrated that they’re willing to ignore their own stated rules of zero-tolerance. Maybe this is fine this time, but now the organizers have shown that they’ll ignore their own rules. This doesn’t set a good precedent if the organizers want other people to trust them to act, no matter how high-status the accused person in a complaint is.

Writing a longer, more nuanced policy is tricky, and I’d rather not sugarcoat that. I think pretending it’s easy to ‘just have a conduct policy’ only solidifies the idea that there are bunch of complicated rules you can’t see, and well-meaning people still won’t ever get it right. Here’s one I’ve assisted in writing and the ever-suggested Geek Feminism Wiki template.

*They meet up and talk through bad textbook examples.

Notes: a common response to stories like this (person is being over attentive and not taking hints, you don’t want them there) is to say “Well, what if you were direct?” I’ve done this. Almost every time, the ‘Bob’ in question has been apologetic or upset but amenable to leaving, because as it turns out, most people are wonderful and don’t want others to feel bad. However. More than once someone I thought was harmless-but-failing-to-leave-me-alone has reacted explosively, once putting me in physical danger, once following me while yelling. The second time was in front of a large group of bystanders, none of whom helped me. 

The lesson I got from this isn’t “all men can be dangerous” but it was that I can’t always expect being direct to result in a change I want. As a result, when I’m ‘Alice’ I find myself thinking not “I should be direct and hope this is a safe situation” but instead “hmmm, I wonder if he’ll take the next hint?” or “I bet if I went to the bathroom this time, he’ll be distracted when I get back.”

The Ambiguity Abyss

We set the scene, with creepy, faceless icons.
We set the scene, with creepy, faceless icons.

[Content Note: lots of talk about gender relations and some talk about assault.]

There’s this Thing that happens where someone (usually a man) is accused of assaulting someone or being generally creepy or boundary-crossing. For a while, I’ve had a story about what I believe is often (but not always) causing this to be such an extremely volatile conversation. A few weeks back, I started testing this explanation on people, and it seemed to make sense to them. All it needed was a name and a public debut. Last week, it got both of those. So! The ambiguity abyss problem:

1. Alice, who is new to the scene is talking to Bob at a meetup. Alice isn’t terribly invested in Bob, and ready to leave the conversation. She feels like she’s signaling this; giving the body cues of turning away and trying to engage others in conversation, talking in monosyllables, and not engaging except to answer the questions Bob asks.

2. The evenings starts to wrap up as people trickle out and away. Bob offers to walk Alice to her room, as it’s late.

3. Alice doesn’t have any strong preference that he doesn’t, and is on the spot when Bob says “I’ll walk you, it’s dark!” It seems extremely rude to give a flat “No”, and she doesn’t want to seem irrational or silly in front of the new people she’s just met for refusing a walk home.

4. Bob talks for much of the walk. Alice talks in monosyllables, but isn’t sure Bob notices that she’s trying to give all the signals of being disinterested.

5. They get to Alice’s apartment, and Bob walks in behind Alice, rather than saying goodbye.

Okay, pause for a second. Right now we have Dude Who Misses Cues and did something fairly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever wandered into a conversation only to realize that everyone was waiting for you to leave, or overstayed your welcome, this is familiar. Unfortunately, Guy Who Is Well Meaning And Missed All Those Hints and Guy Who is Pretending to Miss Hints In Order To Talk His Way Into Isolating You are currently indistinguishable. 


6. Now, Alice is in the uncomfortable position of having someone who pattern-matches to dangerous (seemed to be not reacting to signals that she didnt’ want to be near him, won’t go away, has walked into her room, etc etc etc.)

7. Alice is quite scared and gets more abrupt. She all but pushes Bob out the door.

Alice and Eve8. Alice is unsure whether or not she got lucky by averting something bad, or Bob just didn’t realize he was making her really uncomfortable. Since the difference between dangerous and socially-awkward is quite vast and also quite important for the next time she sees Bob, Alice talks to her friend Eve about it. (Also, humans are just bad at living with ambiguous identities. Being able to categorize Bob as either harmless but boorish, or dangerous will meant devoting less mental energy to turning the encounter over and over in Alice’s head.)

The conversation with Eve could go a few ways.

Option 1: Eve could endorse the “yeah, he’s well meaning but just really doesn’t notice when people aren’t enjoying talking to him” thing, and Alice is happy to hear this. In the future, she just finds it mildly annoying when Bob does similar things.  She works harder to be more direct, or just carefully sidesteps one-on-one interactions with Bob. Not ideal, but a fixable problem.

Lots of faceless peopleOption 2: OR, Eve could say “Wow, I keep hearing this story, and do you know last year when Samantha told Bob he was making her uncomfortable he got really mad and yelled at her until she called the police!”

And so when two new women join the group, Alice or Eve warn them to not let the third step happen: not letting Bob get into conversation with you, lest ye end up having Samantha or Alice’s experience. This continues on for a while.

Keep in mind, Bob has thus far been sort of a jerk who could plausibly be categorized as socially unaware in combination with jerkhood. However, he’s done it so many times and reacted so very badly when someone called him out on it, that people are concerned about his potential to escalate. Now, everyone wants to avoid that scenario and warns each other.

Later in our fictional scenario, Bob is accused of assaulting someone.  It’s a case of he and she said,

She said he followed her to her room at night. She tried to push him out, he became angry and shoved her against the wall. A passerby is heard outside. He backed off and left.

He said that he walked her home, and was annoyed when she rudely told him to leave, but didn’t touch her.

And then here’s what happens:

A group of (mostly women) who include Alice, Eve, Samantha, and people who know them,  come out of the woodwork and all side with the woman who accused Bob. He must have done it! He’s known for this sort of thing! In their hands/ears/brain, they’ve got a bunch of priors: Bob doesn’t take indirect hints that he’s not wanted, and reacts explosively to direct hints. It fits in with the pattern they’ve seen, experienced, or heard about. They’re mightily frustrated that they have been updating as they get more information…and it feels like nobody will listen to them or consider that any of this is plausible.

A group of (mostly men) who don’t know Alice, Eve, or Samantha are quite upset in the opposite direction. All they’ve seen is this guy, Bob, who missed some cues (who doesn’t?) and is a little socially awkward (who isn’t?) be accused of something for which there is no more information than he-said/she-said. Then, they’ve watched a group of people leap right past the whole charitability thing and go about dogpiling on Bob. And what happened to innocent-until-proven-guilty?

And so these two groups stare across at each other, each thinking the other is Wrong and Bad, and also hazardous to having a safe community. Group One badly wants to know that if they’re hurt or assaulted or treated badly, they can be believed (because it feels like Group Two isn’t listening). And Group Two badly wants to know that they can make social faux pas without being summarily thrown out of the group.

Of Allies, Outliers, and Invisibility

[aka, Some Complicated Thoughts That Sort of Contradict Each Other. Contains some discussion of social justice]

There’s a general idea that allies shouldn’t speak over or for the groups they want to aid; good article explaining the principle of this here. And this makes some obvious sorts of sense: we can intuitively see where a man cheerfully explaining that “what women really want is…” has the potential to undercut the group he’s trying to help. Women might actually really want that thing where they don’t need men to repeat their talking points in order for them to be taken seriously…or they just wanted something slightly different than the mostly-accurate thing the man in question said.

But there are also these other things that seem reasonable principles:

People in marginalized identities can’t always be public about those identities. 
For instance, trans people, the mentally ill, different varieties of queer identities, people in the kink community, polyamorous people, on and on, can have spaces (or their entire lives) for which the cost-benefit of publicly claiming part of their identity is high on cost and low on benefit. This is one of the things I think the social justice community/communities handle very well: acknowledging that not everyone can go around mentioning their plans to get dinner with their boyfriend’s girlfriend or sending a company-wide email requesting different pronouns.

It’s a bad idea to shame or force people to out themselves.
Being mean to people for circumstances beyond their control is not how to support people who belong to already-stepped-on groups. The pushback against It Gets Better videos (it doesn’t always get better, let’s not pretend that you can expect it) probably illustrated this well, as do the reminders I see floating around tumblr to be careful to defer to trans and nonbinary people’s choices of pronoun and name usage in public to avoid accidentally outing them.

And all of the above makes sense to me. But…they collide in complicated ways.

Imagine this conversation:

Me: I think there’s a lot to be said for the medical model of mental illness. It fails people in a very specific and bad set of ways, but I think throwing it out would do more harm than good.

Person: You don’t understand. People who are mentally ill suffer under this model, and it fucks us over. You’re perpetuating something that harms us, and if you wanted to do something to help the mentally ill, you should listen to us, not try to speak for what will help us best.

I could be totally wrong about the medical model of mental illness, and I’m not very confident that I’m right. But I’m in the position of not addressing that until I wave my membership card as mentally ill. Which feels about as comfortable as yelling “no, you should listen to me!” usually does. I’m One of Us, albeit one with a less common opinion about diagnoses!

So in these conversations I usually very awkwardly mention my mental illness while feeling sort of like a jerk and slightly annoyed and then hope we can continue talking. But I’m lucky in this respect, because it isn’t so much ‘outing’ myself as ‘offering information freely available on the internet”. This isn’t always the case, and I’ve watched others get hate  for overreaching as an ally…while knowing the ‘ally’ in question…wasn’t, and also couldn’t out themselves.

People who are exploring their identity seem particularly trapped. Take Riley One, who is uncertain if they want to identify as genderqueer, so they start poking around on blogs and forums discussing nonbinary identities, trying to figure out if they want to describe themselves that way.

In the meantime, Riley realizes that things can really suck if you’re nonbinary, and starts posting/talking/writing/advocating more about how binary gender assignment isn’t necessary. Riley finds the number of gender-neutral pronouns overwhelming, however, and also says stuff like “look, I think the community has way too much attachment to having special snowflake pronouns but we should have gender-neutral options.”

People who have found themselves comfortable in specific pronouns for the first time are, understandably, upset when they run across this. Who is this person who wants to tell the world that varieties of gender-neutral pronouns are unnecessary?

But maybe there’s a Riley Two. Riley Two has some friends who are nonbinary and considers himself an ally but just thinks that whole variety-of-pronouns-thing is silly and harming their cause, and occasionally says things like “look, I think the community has way too much attachment to having special snowflake pronouns but we should have gender-neutral options.”

At this point, Riley One and Riley Two are indistinguishable in outward appearance. And treating Riley One like Riley Two will probably send them far away from a community they might want to be in, feeling more isolated and even less understood. Simultaneously, it’s unpleasant and common for disadvantaged groups to be unable to voice their concerns as more powerful, less disadvantaged outsiders speak over them, insisting they understand. Forcing people to out themselves in order to participate in the community violates some deeply held and valuable norms that offer protection and safety to the most vulnerable.

I have no conclusion that isn’t heavy sighs and rubbing my temples. This stuff is complicated. And deeply important. And complicated.

The Goldberg Paradigm and Elegant Gender Research

[CW: discussion of gender research and reactions therein. More research analysis than social justice.]

Recently, I’ve been having a number of conversations about methodology in psychology. I’ve been mentioning that psychology of gender research has tended to have excellent methodology, relative to the baseline. In response, I’ve gotten shocked laughter, nervous giggles, and utter confusion. I expect that some of this comes from researcher fears about one’s research being misinterpreted for great big arguments on the internet, defenses of sexism, etc.

For instance, imagine this entirely fictional scenario in which you take a careful look at Norwegian households and chores. (pdf, all in Norwegian until p. 223) You notice that the households with more parity in housework sharing are also households that break up more frequently. You write two hundred and twenty nine pages,* carefully thinking through causes for the results, including statements like

“Untraditional couples, where he does the most of the housework, may hold a less traditional or more modern view about marriage, whereby marital dissatisfaction more easily leads to marital break-up. If so, the division of housework is no “cause” of later divorce”

and after all of that work, you get deep media analysis like:

In what appears to be a slap in the face for gender equality, the report found the divorce rate among couples who shared housework equally was around 50 per cent higher than among those where the woman did most of the work.” [Telegraph]

Ladies, you may want to think twice before asking your husband to help out around the house. [thanks, HuffPo]

And then there was the pushback: who is this guy? There could be so many other mediating variables! (The pushback was impressively thoughtful, but I still regularly hear that research says women should do housework/chore-sharing will ruin your relationship). In short, people might not have strong and divisive opinions about the truth of research investigating how people pee in public restrooms. Said research is unlikely to be a question they’ve wrestled with, a formative part of their identity, or purporting to answer a question of how one should handle a highly-valued relationship, in the way gender relations is.

But, write a study showing that women are slightly better at a female-associate skill, that men are better at a male-associated skill, that there’s no difference in gender performance on a specific-gender-associated skill, that traditionally structured relationships succeed in specific ways, that non-traditionally structured relationships succeed in specific ways….do any of those things, and people will have Opinions and other people will have Disagreements, all of them asserting that they’re experts. I think this knowledge: that your research will be endlessly misinterpreted and picked apart in the public sphere, keeps psych of gender researchers constructing careful, airtight, designs and cautious discussion sections.

So, let’s talk about some really fantastic gender research: the Goldberg Paradigm.

The Goldberg paradigm is elegantly, beautifully, simple. It’s the sort of experimental design that throws me in to raptured lectures and hand-waving.

Picture this: you create one written profile of a potential job candidate. However, you assign it two different names: one male, one female. Then, armed with you two different job candidates, you hand the profiles to a number of department chairs, and see what happens. In fact what happens (and has prompted over a hundred replications since) is that the female-named resumes get less response. They’re less likely to be called, less likely to be viewed as qualified, less likely to be offered mentorship. This effect appears without a difference between men and women potential-employers.

The research done by Goldberg originally took place more than thirty years ago, but a more recent test of the paradigm showed that it continues to replicate. Variations are also used to test religious bias and prejudice against ‘non-American’ names.

So what makes the Goldberg Paradigm so cleanly beautiful? In short, it handles lots of tricky confounds. In many aspects of workplace treatment, disentangling other factors of communication style and halo effect  makes for an impossible game. Is it that employers favor men or that other, simple, psychology serves people who push hard for raises, and men are more likely to push for raises? The Goldberg-based resumes create two identical career histories, remove any appearance or behavioral variables, and see what happens.

After taking a minute to think about variables other than implicit gender bias that could result in this sort of robust effect, here’s the only ones I came up with:

Names: there’s some name research that perhaps certain names are associated with certain skills. If the male name on the Goldberg resume is more congruent with the job in question than the female name, eh….maybe? I’m skeptical of this research already, and have a hard time imagining that this effect, if it even exists in the wild, could be contributing to every single replication that found the effect.

Job-Gender congruency: For the most part, these were for male dominated fields: lab manager, researcher. If you were to do this with a nurses job, I would expect the results to reverse or disappear. (However, I want to point out more gender research, somewhat old, suggesting that perceptions of men doing ‘women’s’ jobs and women doing ‘men’s’ jobs are treated differently, and are far more likely to be rewarded for ‘token’ status.)

That’s….not so bad, as far as confounds in psychology go. And sure, some of that has to do with the subject at hand. “Does gender impact the interpretation of concrete details and qualifications on resumes” is a bit of an easier game than “How does gender impact subtle social status signaling in conversations in the workplace?” It’s just slightly harder to get the latter.  The former can give us some sense of the landscape, without building so much on tenuous connections and oceans of confounds.

And since I started by talking about poor interpretations of psych of gender research, let’s talk about what happens here, what to make of the results. They’re sometimes used to argue that ‘being a man is equivalent to X years of experience”. Which…is more rhetorical than purely correct, because of course it’s not that easy to quantify. What I think the cost that’s being indicated by the resume test is that of attributional ambiguity.

Imagine this: you’re half the Goldberg paradigm come to life. You, a woman, submit your application materials to a lab where you’d like to work as a research assistant. Several days later, you hear that a candidate has been selected–a man. This is the fifth time you’ve submitted materials, and you feel quite as qualified as the other applicants. On one hand, it might be that you’re unlucky. Or there’s something about your resume that’s off putting–a typo, or just failing to properly advertise yourself. It might have been that each of those times you applied, you were competing against an extraordinary candidate, who was hired each time.

Or, it might be that you’re a woman, and accidentally on the receiving end of some unconscious bias. You have no idea, and what’s more, you have no way to find out. You might be able to change some aspect of the application, or get more experience before applying to that sort of job again, but you also don’t know if that’s what works. You might be wasting extra work on nothing. And that, perhaps, is the most damning thing the Goldberg paradigm points at.

*This also puts me in mind of the Rind, et al controversy.

Goldberg, P. (1968). Are women prejudiced against women? Transaction, 5, 316-322.
Fidell, L.S. (1975). Empirical verification of sex discrimination in hiring practices in psychology. In R.K. Inger & F.L. Denmark (Eds.), Woman: Dependent or independent variable? (pp. 774-782). New York: Psychological Dimensions.
Rudman, L.A. and Glick, P. (2010). The social psychology: How power and intimacy shape gender relations. New York: The Guilford Press.