Oh, you’re with them?

One of my friends is a woman of color, and not that long ago, she arrived with three male colleagues in the lobby of a building for a scheduled meeting. The administrative assistant came out, walked right past my friend, shook the hands of the three men, and welcomed them. My friend extended her hand to introduce herself, and the assistant asked, "Oh, you're with them?"

My friend is head of the department.

In the aftermath of the incident, there was an apology, but along with the apology came a number of excuses: The remarks were unintentional. There was no malice intended. Even the apology itself was a "I'm sorry you felt this way" non-apology.

Episodes like these are the sort of slights that accumulate over a career, and they contribute to an unwelcoming climate for women in the workplace. Kieran Snyder interviewed over 700 women who left the tech industry. Almost all of them said that they enjoyed the work itself. It was the work environment that drove them out. And six out of seven have no plans to return.

Microsoft recognizes this and tries to foster an inclusive and diverse work environment, but that doesn't mean the company doesn't screw up (sometimes quite spectacularly).

This is hardly a topic I have expertise in, so I'm going to defer to this thoroughly-researched article by Rachel Thomas. For me, the part that stood out was this: "a study from Yale researchers shows that perceiving yourself as objective is actually correlated with showing even more bias."

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, named in honor of the world's first computer programmer.

Comments (16)
  1. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    Yale’s study matches my personal experience. I think it is because people that think of themselves as “objective” hardly challenge their assumptions, which are converted into biases. On the other hand, people that doubt of their own objectivity are continuously challenging their thoughts, and that makes them more open minded.

    1. Kevin says:

      That plus Dunning-Kruger, which is the more general principle that “people who think they are good at X are actually bad at X and vice-versa.”

      1. Josh B says:

        The Dunning-Kruger study points out that people pretty evenly fall into “think they’re good and are actually good, think they’re good but are actually rubbish, those who think they’re rubbish but are actually quite good, and those who know all too well that they’re complete pants at it all.” There’s no predictions to it at all, just a simple description that SOME people carry wrong beliefs about their capabilities. Somehow over the years that morphed into “anyone who thinks they’re good at something is actually rubbish” as a way of dismissing all competing claims.

        Annoys me to see the study misinterpreted so badly. Most of the time, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the wrong thing to bring up to make whatever point you’re trying to make.

        1. Petr Kadlec says:

          You mean like most of the time, people who think they understand Dunning–Kruger in fact do not understand it?

        2. Mason Wheeler says:

          Yes, exactly.

          IMO any line of “reasoning” in which the act of claiming X–particularly about oneself–can be used as proof that X is false should be looked upon with the utmost suspicion by any reasonable being.

        3. MarcK4096 says:

          If someone is completely incompetent, then he or she lacks the ability to know it

      2. Having read the original paper, I’m not sure how you’re using their results here; they came out with three results in toto:

        1. In a randomly selected population, there is no correlation between an individual’s belief in their abilities and their actual competence.
        2. Getting a randomly selected group of people to mechanically grade tests (compare answers to an answer key) doesn’t improve the correlation between their belief and their actual competence, even when the grading exercise should show them that their belief is wrong.
        3. Working to improve people’s actual skill level does improve the correlation between their belief in their abilities and their actual competence, even if their skill level does not increase.

        None of those translate for me into “people who think they are good at X are actually bad at X and vice-versa”; the first two say that people’s perception of their own abilities is all over the place (IOW, what they think is not connected to how good they are), while the third says that if you work to become better at something, your ability may or may not improve, but your perception of your own ability will become more accurate.

        Put another way; if you want accurate ideas of someone’s skill level, train them and test them – the training will get them to self-calibrate, and the tests will be honest.

    2. Antonio Rodríguez says:

      As Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing”. The more you learn about anything, the more you realize all that is left to know.

      1. And the extreme difficulty of being objective doesn’t really help here.

  2. smf says:

    This has been going round for years (it even features in “The Office” (UK) Christmas Special) and was studied a few years ago.


    Nature or nurture, we won’t know for a long time. But just because you’re biased doesn’t mean you’re bad. How you deal with your bias does.

  3. nathan_works says:

    Thanks for talking about this and bringing notice to the subject.. Social skills of a thermonuclear device indeed ;)

    1. Ray Koopa says:

      That is incredibly cringy. Thanks for sharing it, I feel bad now =D

  4. Phylyp says:

    Great post. Is this really Raymond’s blog? :-)

  5. Yukkuri says:

    Yes bigotry is still alive and well in 2016 CE…

  6. Yuhong Bao says:

    As a side note, I don’t like anti-discrimination or wrongful termination laws, though I am willing to compromise. I suggest a compromise to only include certain kinds of jobs like manual labor under employment anti-discrimination laws, where workers are actually commodities that are measureable and interchangeable.

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