Brain dump #2 – diversity in academia

A little experiment with a call for contributors by the LSE Review of Books that yielded some interesting results. It’s an old post and I can’t remember who put it my way (sorry, thanks) but I thought the point about choice of words was a good one – how to encourage under-represented groups without signalling to over-represented groups that they are not welcome at all (which is only going to perpetuate a sense of division). I tend to agree with the writer’s conclusion that “particularly interested in hearing from…” is probably a phrase you want to avoid, because it can be taken to mean something other than what it is intended to mean.

Words are tricky because they carry so much baggage. Perhaps anyone writing a call for contributions has an impossible balance to achieve because of the associations people make with certain phrases. Action and example, where it’s a possibility, is probably easier. Whenever I’ve been in a position to pick hands out of an audience to ask questions, I’ve tried to go for a woman first. I was reminded of this the weekend before last at the Battle of Ideas, where the session chairs tended to tap a good half-dozen men in the Q&As before any women. It’s quite possible – likely, actually – that this was simply representative of the sea of hands presented to them. But taking the extra half-second to scan the room for a member of a group whose contribution you wish to encourage has the great advantage of not being an explicit discouragement of anyone. Everyone in those situations accepts that somebody has to be picked first, and also that they may not get to ask their question at all.

And it’s always interesting to see just how many more women’s hands go up after you’ve picked a woman once. Presumably the unconscious logic runs, oh right, this is for me. Before anyone has asked a question, the range of possibilities for the room is limitless, but your decision about who to pick first nudges the room along a certain path. Obviously this is not limited to the gender division – people in ethnic minorities, people from different socio-economic groups, people who happen to be sitting at the back under some blown lightbulbs, might all take their cue from the early decisions of the chair.

It’s a long way from being scientific though. I guess a sort of control would be picking a man the first time and seeing if more women’s hands start to go up anyway, in which case a plausible explanation might be that women don’t, as a rule, want to ask the first question. I didn’t put my own hand up in the Battle of Ideas sessions until I was sure I had a question that would contribute (or rather until I’d had the opportunity to assess prevailing levels of Dunning-Kruger bias among the other questioners). It’s even possible that the mere act of updating the call for contributors got the LSE Review of Books a bumper crop of women respondents the second time round, because it signalled that the editors’ needs had not been fulfilled by the initial response, and that the world is not, in fact, full of people obviously cleverer and better qualified than oneself, something certain groups are disproportionately prone to assuming.

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