Gender bias and fairness of treatment: a tale of demand and supply?

I recently attended a seminar on Unconscious Bias. The principle is simple yet always problematic: the evaluation of others is affected by our own stereotypes and attitudes, which we cannot see ourselves. So far so good…

The conversation kicked off on career progression, and continued with career progression in academia, and then again on gender bias. Ok, I started to get a little itch right then. Gender bias is indeed a huge problem in academia, and I strongly believe it should be addressed. But it is not the only source of inequality and unfair treatment. I would say that ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality, just to mention other three, also play an important (negative) role…yet they are widely ignored. Think, for instance, how much the UK has benefited from the brain drain from other countries (like mine, Italy). A large number of extraordinary researchers and teachers, yet: how many academics not born and bred in the United Kingdom are in leadership positions in our university system?

Ok, back to gender bias –do not get me wrong- I fully embrace the cause, even though I have some concerns to share about the debate around it. The seminar continued illustrating methods and techniques to monitor on career progression procedures. With a few interjections and some (quite angry) comments about the current situation from the audience (90% composed of female colleagues). What I struggle to understand is: where is the novelty? Every modern institution has Human Resources and Equality and Diversity policies to tackle gender discrimination. It is quite difficult to evaluate their impact, but they are in place. So the next question is: what is missing?

I will use the language that I am familiar with (as economist) to explain my point of view. Imagine that we are in the market for “fairness in the work environment”. There is a supply of fairness delivered by HR and E&D policy and procedures. This is complemented and informed by data, statistics, and all sort of interviews on experience of applicants to career progression. A lot of time and effort is spent on the supply side, but what about the demand side? Yeah, right: what about demand for fairness? Females (or other groups subject to discrimination) are not well represented in leadership position, but are they applying for these positions? (We can observe the number of those who applied, but not the number of those who got discouraged by the system and did not. This is what we call sample selection bias). The problem is that particular groups (e.g. females) have experienced discrimination for decades… centuries really! So, even if institutions are taking care of the supply side of fairness, the demand might be lagging behind because it takes time for discriminated groups to raise their own awareness and aspirations to come to a position of even demanding for fairness. Assessing this empirically it is not an easy task, but at least we should acknowledge it!

So, the problem is there: there is still under-representation for particular social groups. But can we clearly pinpoint whether that is a supply or a demand issue? Somebody might say: it does not matter, the problem is still there! The answer is, yes, the problem is there, but the policy you need to put in place to address it is completely different! I think we should never neglect the supply side; we should continue to monitor it and to improve it. But on the demand side we are truly lagging behind. I would like to see more training, mentoring and networking to raise awareness within social groups affected by discrimination. (What I often see, instead, is a lot of entrenchment and anger). It takes time and effort, but it is essential. Now, there are two reasons why institutions push on the supply side: (1) it is easier to tackle, (2) it prevents legal disputes and protects institutions from being sued. This is perfectly understandable. But how about people (e.g. females)? How can we incentivise pressure groups to abandon entrenched, angry positions to take real good care of the demand side? Who should do it? Hard to tell, but that is the direction to go now.

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