Our tea breaks (and a certain someone’s 30th birthday) last week was abuzz about a seminar we got from @fatwhitebloke who was talking about implicit bias.
STEM has a problem with women, and the UK in general has a problem with immigrants, so the talk was very relevant to us. Dr Jones was talking to us about implicit bias, and how our subconscious mind makes decisions that our conscious minds would not. Jones was very explicit about his own implicit biases, which I appreciated. Having a bias does not make you a bad person, but allowing that bias to control your decisions, and being unwilling to change that, does.
They have a little youtube vid about it here:
But one of the things Jones said really stuck out to me, because I spend a lot of time on places like Tumblr and seeing ‘representation matters‘. I ‘know’ this on an instinctive level, I know that Gadget and Captain Janeway are part of the reason I’m here today. When I was little, I identified with the women, and I know that I’m very happy with my life and where I’ve ended. Representation matters to me.
But I’d never thought of it as Dr Jones explained it – and he did this off the cuff, noting to us that this one audience where he didn’t need to explain ‘mylenation of the neurons’.
It certainly sparked some of mine.
You know that electricity is messy. You may have seen electricity jump before (though perhaps not so spectacularly), and you know that electrical wires must be insulated with plastic. Our brains are collections of neurons, a kind of cell that can transmit electrical energy – just like a wire. When babies are young, unable to walk, or to coordinate their movements, all these neurons are ‘firing’ and the electricity is going everywhere. The important neurons coordinating where hands go need to be insulated to keep that signal going along the right path, so with us, those neurons become insulated with a fatty sheath that does not conduct electricity. We call this myelination.
Important pathways in the brain (like the parts that help you to touch your finger to your nose) get well insulated.
Jones asked us to imagine we were walking into an office and we saw the receptionist – who is the receptionist? What are they wearing? How do they compose themselves? Don’t cheat – like most of us you probably saw an attractive (white?) woman, well (sexily?) dressed. It’s how we see secretaries in the media, it’s not necessarily what we know of secretaries from our own personal experience. And our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, but our conscious mind often passes off those decisions to the part of our mind that made all of those connections.
And when you reinforced those connections, what happened? The more we see that, the more those connections get insulated. They become easier to reach next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And then as we get older, they become our go-to position.
Now there might be one more argument here – that hey, perhaps a lot of secretaries ARE sexily dressed white women so what’s the problem?
Here we have two choices. This person is a secretary. This person is a secretary who is a sexy woman. Most people will choose the second option with more detail, because humans are terrible at probability. We see that extra information and say “yes, that fits with what I think about secretaries”, forgetting that the subpopulation of sexy female secretaries will ALWAYS be smaller than the larger population just described by ‘secretary’. (See the io9 post on the fallacy here).
Our implicit biases make assumptions and decisions for us. Representation matters because it can stop the insulation of the connections – it makes us less likely to jump to that conclusion. Which leads me to the amazing Guillermo del Toro quote:
I think that every choice is political. When you decide that a woman can be a character of her own and not have to fall in love with the f***ing guy, that’s a political choice. When you choose that they can speak in their own language and be subtitled, that’s a political choice. I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are all — the whole world — in the same robot. It’s this f***ing planet. No matter who you are, what you like to do, whatever your race or whatever your religion, we’re all human. And I think it’s really great to make a movie that celebrates that diversity.
So yes, representation matters. And science agrees.