1. Affirmative Wager

    There’s a very risky — but important — conversation that takes place in our community from time to time. It’s about gender and sexism. To be honest, I’m scared to write about this for fear that something I say might be twisted into a derogatory opinion that is not representative of the way I actually think and feel.

    I put this on Twitter, a while back:

    That said, I do have something to say, and I haven’t heard anyone else make this point, so I suppose I should step up and say it.

    When Chris and I select potential writers for Web Advent, we make a conscious decision to approach women who we think would do a good job. I also admit to doing this in the past when my role was to select conference speakers.

    To be clear, I’m not a fan of affirmative action — far from it. Sure, I’m a caucasian male, and I’m not so naïve as to think that there’s not a certain amount of unrequested privilege that comes with being born into this body, but I also strongly believe in the benefits of meritocracy — especially in online communities.

    Naïvety aside, I’ve worked to get where I am today, and I will keep working to advance further. When the opportunity presented itself (due to previous hard work), I moved to Montreal with barely two weeks’ salary in the bank, and decided to work at advancing to the top tier in our field. When I first met Kevin Yank, and saw what he’d accomplished with his first book, I was motivated to get involved in the more-public side of our community: writing, getting involved with PHP documentation, and speaking at conferences. I grew up in a relatively small city, in a timezone that most of you probably don’t even know exists (one hour ahead of America/New_York), where there was little opportunity to survive, let alone advance. I’m even horribly under-educated.

    I mention these things not to glorify my own accomplishments, but to illustrate my strong belief that people should be recognized for their contributions and their abilities, not for their race, gender, financial background, or most other reasons.

    So, I think that people should earn their place, and yet I make a determined effort to seek out female contributors. Sounds like a paradox. I’m not much of a fan of those.

    I have a theory about this. I hope I’m right, but I’m open to the idea that I might not be. My theory goes like this:

    The women who have advanced in our community, and have overcome the hardships that are inherent to being in such a minority, almost certainly function at a higher level than the average community member.

    That is to say that — in my experience, and anecdotally — most of the women who survive in our community are exceptional members of our community. They are very good at what they do, and they are (likely uncoincidentally) some of my favourite people.

    This theory tidily resolves the aforementioned paradox in my logic, and — to me at least — is evidence for why we ought to make an affirmative wager (hat tip to Pascal) in giving women a fair chance (in an often-unfair environment) when making event/opportunity selections, and why more women should be encouraged to participate in the present and future development of how the community operates.

    …at least until the gender imbalance is a thing of the past.

    4 Responses

    Feed for this Entry
    • iDontThinkImSexist

      2013 Mar 07 10:26

      Just an additional thought: the primary goal of "affirmative action" isn't necessarily the direct benefit to the employee / speaker (i.e., trying to account for the assumed inequities the current applicant has suffered), but rather positively affecting the environment for the future (i.e., decreasing the inequities that future applicants will suffer). For example, selecting more female speakers and authors now (e.g., through affirmative action type techniques) can create an environment that is more welcoming to other women participants in the future, thus decreasing the future systemic bias and working to obviate affirmative action in the long term.

      I.e., it's not necessarily about giving any individual applicant an inherent advantage right now, it's about (1) acknowledging that the current environment is biased and is not a completely equitable meritocracy ; and (2) deciding to take an active part is moving the environment to an equitable meritocracy. It might just happen to unevenly benefit some individuals right now, but that's a (not altogether undesirable) side effect.

      To me, at least, that is a bit of salve against the cognitive dissonance between affirmative action and a belief in meritocracy that a first-order view of affirmative action can create.

    • The concern is that affirmative action can reinforce, rather than counter-act, confirmation bias. "I only got accepted because I'm [insert group here] and they go easier on me" can be just as harmful as "I am [insert group here] so I wouldn't get accepted."

      Increasing variety without inadvertently reinforcing confirmation bias is a serious challenge.

      Also, it begs the question of when do you stop? Presumably we want at some point to not care if a presenter is female/black/gay/whatever and still end up with a diverse slate of speakers/employees/whatever. But if we structurally build in compensation measures for current bias, then how will we know we've reached that point? And when we reach that point, we need to again take active steps to pull out those vestigial compensation measures, which we know from experience is often harder than putting them in place. (I think Congress still has a bicentennial committee. Really.)

      I'm not saying do nothing about "lack of diversity"; I'm saying be careful that what you do doesn't end up back-firing in the end, because that's really easy to do. I don't really have a good answer for that problem.

    • As a grossly undereducated yet somewhat successful member of our community, I'm a firm believer in and supporter of meritocracy. I hate the idea that a person's race or gender would stand in the way of their ability to stand on their merits and their merits alone and it pains me that this is an ongoing issue in our community. I've worked with people of varying degrees of competence and would hate to see someone limited because of an irrelevant factor (like gender) as much as I'd hate to see someone advance because of an irrelevant factor (like gender).

    • Sean,  I applaud you for writing about such a sensitive topic.  It is extremely important to keep the conversation going and raise awareness of issues in our community.

      Bias,  I feel,  is a key element that proponents of meritocracy disregard when arguing against affirmative action.  Affirmative action does not mean hiring people without the best qualifications.

      Inherit bias in any majority is inescapable.  There are people in minority groups that enter into the majority--and as you point out excel--because they have had to overcome a significant amount of bias to get there.  What the majority says is, "Play this game, but play it with these rules."  People can either choose to play or not.  But it should not be an either/or decision.  The majority defined these rules based on their own experience and culture,  regardless of efficiency and productivity.

      Meritocracy makes the assumption that everyone starts out with the same base, has the same motivation, and has the same present (not just past) life-circumstances to play by the current set of rules.  "Earning" merit is important, but "earning" merit by a particular system is a fallacy.  A person can do an excellent job differently than the majority.  We have applauded our greatest entrepreneurs for doing just that.

      Affirmative action changes the system in which we earn merit.  Encouraging minorities to join the majority by changing the rules does not lower standards.  It's a way of creating a broad and diverse ecosystem of talent.  The only reason why we have any given set of rules is the inherit socio-economic bias which comes with any majority.  However the rules of the game can change, and should, so more people can play in the way they want to play.