Training away mental bias

In which I recount an experiment I have been performing. Please be aware that in this article I am in “[meaning what I say][1]” mode.

For the past year or so, I have been consciously trying to identify and counteract places in the “natural”, everyday use of language in which gender bias is implicitly assumed to be correct. The kind of thing I mean is:

A: I called the plumber.

B: And what did he say?

I have also been keeping tabs on the way the word “man” creeps into occupations and so forth:

We are looking for a new chairman for the society.

Specifically, I did the following to counter this culturally-imposed tendency:

  1. I switched to using gender-neutral pronouns in my writing (although more recently, I have reverted to “he-or-she” in conversation)
  2. I formed a habit of noticing whenever I thought the words “she” or “he”, and checking whether I actually knew the gender of the person in question
  3. If for some reason I need to invent a person, and gender-neutral won’t do, I flip a coin to determine that character’s gender (which will, in theory, completely eliminate gender bias in my characters)

I think that I have succeeded in correcting the bias, at least partially. A week ago, I was even caught by surprise when someone referred to an electrician of unspecified gender as “he” - I had to backtrack mentally and work out whether I’d missed the specification of eir gender, before I realised that this was simply the usual bias being demonstrated by other people. In much the same way, it would surprise me for an electrician to be assumed to be called Fred 1 (“I phoned for an electrician to fix our wiring. Fred was amazing."), or to be gluten-intolerant (“I phoned for an electrician to fix our wiring, but of course he couldn’t eat the cheesecake I’d made for him."), or to be particularly tall (“I phoned for an electrician to fix our wiring, but she had the obvious trouble moving around in the attic.").

This is not to proselytise - I’ve never pointed out people’s gender bias unless they’ve specifically asked for me to do something similar, because in my experience (sample size of 1, when I explained the problem as I see it to someone) people get annoyed and call me a “feminist”. 2 I don’t understand why people would get annoyed that I would like women and men to be treated equally, and the issue is further obscured by the labelling of my views as “feminism”. Not that I am against feminism particularly, but using the word “feminist” just clouds the issue. In the same way, calling yourself a “liberal” encompasses an enormous range of policies, and I may not agree with every single one to identify myself as a liberal. For me to be a “feminist” could be interpreted by some as “this person wishes for men to be replaced entirely by women”, rather than the interpretation I would prefer (namely, “this person wishes for males to be treated as fairly as females in all things”). Classifying your argument immediately makes everything harder for all parties, as it then sets up a pressure to remain consistent with the entire category you have given, rather than with what you intended to convey. Silly example: “I’m a utilitarian” vs “I think people should act so as to maximise the happiness of people around them”.

Given that the person-who-got-annoyed in question was female, I don’t think I have the right to overrule her position. 3

Anyway, I think that my attempt to realign my thoughts so that the implicit, unannounced anti-female bias is less pronounced has been a success. I do not claim perfection, of course, and I will keep going with my new habits (they’re a part of me now, so it’s easier to keep going than not). I have no real-world outcomes to measure, apart from being acutely aware of everyone else’s bias 4 - I intend at some point to take a test to give me a quantitative answer, but at present I can’t find the particular test I have in mind. 5 I hope these habits are having a good effect on my thinking.

[1]: {% post_url 2013-10-11-meaning-what-you-say %}

  1. I’m flipping coins for the genders in this paragraph, too. ↩︎

  2. As if that were some kind of horrendous slight upon my good name. ↩︎

  3. Although I can’t help drawing a parallel with extremely wealthy people claiming that “money is unimportant”; it feels as bogus as a philosopher claiming that “truth is relative” - which is simply asking for you not to believe em. ↩︎

  4. Again, I mean what I say: I do not necessarily mean that “I am unbiased” or “I am unaware of my own bias”. ↩︎

  5. Its protocol is to flash up pairs of words like {“good”,“female”} or {“uncle, male”}, whereupon the testee presses a button for “related” and a different button for “unrelated”. The idea is that it is easy to determine whether {“uncle”,“male”} are related, but if bias is present then {“competent”,“female”} will be harder (and hence slower) to determine than {“competent”, “male”}, because we are so used to thinking of males implicitly as more competent. ↩︎