Real Talk About Implicit Bias


This is what I read on Twitter.




And then I read the rest of Shaula's thread and asked her if I could reproduce it here.

I've been Shaula's fan ever since I met her on The Black Board, the scriptwriting community she founded and used to moderate. I always felt happy there because of her 
excellent information and the warmth and style of her responses. And I'm very happy that a little bit of Shaula is now here. Thanks a million, Shaula.

Shall we get real for a moment about implicit bias and blind submissions? 'Implicit bias' refers to unconscious bias (i.e, prejudice) about groups of people. (If you're unfamiliar with the term, here's a quick primer: Stanford University: FAQ on Implicit Bias.)

Do you think you're too hip and liberated to exhibit implicit bias? You're not. Science says it's real and we all suffer from it despite our noblest intentions. But don't take my word for it, try the Implicit Assumption Test (IAT) yourself: Project Implicit.

Study after study shows that blind submissions/auditions (that remove race/gender identifies) minimize the effects of implicit bias. Translation: taking away (/minimizing) the possibility of discriminating by race & gender levels the playing field for everybody.

Why should you care? Especially if you're white or male or a member of some other social group for which implicit bias works in your favor?

Well, if you care about finding the top talent in your field (vs making biased decisions), blind submissions will help you do that. And if you genuinely care about diversity, blind submissions level the playing field so that marginalized people get a fair shot.

Good news: we live in the 21st century & there are great tech options to enable blind submissions. There is no excuse not to adopt blind submissions in your organization.

Let's look at how implicit bias works in the writing world. If your response to the issues raised by implicit bias is to put the onus on writers to use a pseudonym & mask their identity to get ahead, then:

1. You are shifting the blame for institutional discrimination from your organization to the individual.

2. You are asking already marginalized people to erase their identities.

3. You are losing out on great talent that is sidelined by prejudice.

Whether you work in film, publishing, HR (resumes), orchestras (blind auditions), or any gatekeeping field, do yourself a favor: educate yourself about implicit bias and get serious about blind submissions. Or, alternatively, acknowledge that you don't give a rat's ass about diversity and finding top talent--but be honest about it.

Instituting blind submissions is one of the many situations where the moral case aligns with the business case: doing the right thing will get you better results.


Related Reading

Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. "Are Emily And Greg More Employable Than Lakisha And Jamal? A Field Experiment On Labor Market Discrimination," American Economic Review, 2004, v94 (4, Sep), 991-1013.

Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. "Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact Of 'Blind' Auditions On Female Musicians," American Economic Review, 2000, v90 (4, Sep), 715-741.

Jennings, Karla. "In praise of being a blind reader," May 21, 2014, HowlRound.com

Nichols, Catherine. "Homme De Plume:What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name," August 4, 2015 Jezebel.com

Rice, Curt. "How blind auditions help orchestras to eliminate gender bias," The Guardian, October 14, 2013.

Staats, Cheryl. State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University.

Shaula Evans is a writer, a speaker, and a social media consultant who specializes in building thriving online communities. She is an alumna of St. Michaels University School (Canada), École des Roches (France), Sophia University (Japan), and McGill University. After working in the public and private sectors in Canada, France, Japan and South Korea, she moved to the US where she currently resides. A former actress and director, she is also a poet, editor, and translator. You can find her on the web at ShaulaEvans.com and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.


Related Wellywood Woman Posts

Reading Women's Scripts

Underrepresentation in Scriptwriting (Again)

Both of these refer to Emily Glassberg Sands' thesis on reading scripts for theatre, Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater, a very fine and fascinating read.

And when I tweeted about this post Pip Hall, current president of the New Zealand Writers Guild, provided the NZWG details. The SEED grants she refers to were previously administered by New Zealand's state film fund, the New Zealand Film Commission, which did not blind read.


The details about how many more women writers submitted scripts when responsibility for SEED grants went to the NZWG and the subsequent increase in investment in women-written scripts, are in here and here. Earlier gender stats for writer-only funding are in this New Zealand Film Commission paper by Selina Joe.

24 comments:

  1. Marian, it's such a pleasure to write for you--I'm glad we finally made this happen.

    I'm grateful to you for giving this discussion a home. Implicit bias is an important issue and while blind submissions are not a complete solution, they are a powerful tool towards addressing issues of marginalization and under-representation. I hope the information above will open the eyes of people who do care about diversity and social justice to the proven potential of blind submissions.

    Thank you again,

    Shaula

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    1. Aw. Thank *you*. The pleasure's totally mine. Let's hope lots of people continue the discussion and take action, all over the place. Would love to hear about experiences with blind submissions--

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    2. I have a number of literary editor friends who use blind submissions. I'll see if I can't lure them into the conversation as I would like to hear more about their experiences, too.

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  2. PS I was chatting with the people at Submittable today, and a growing number of film festivals/screenplay competitions use their submission management software for its blind submissions option. I'd love to hear from people in the film world who are using blind submissions--and how they're making it work; i.e., using Submittable, a home-grown system, or a commercial alternative.

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  3. Hooray to Shaula for writing this up and to Marian for posting it! As a writer whose day job is as a violinist with various symphonies, I’ve had plenty of experience with the blind (and not blind) orchestral audition process.

    Some basic points on how it works in symphonies, for those unfamiliar with it:
    -an opaque screen between candidate and jury (although a semi-opaque screen that shows a silhouette has also been used, obscuring specific identification or race but not necessarily gender)
    -a random drawing (pull a number from a hat) to identify candidates by number instead of name
    -a proctor who ushers and introduces candidates, relays all communication between candidate and jury, and otherwise ensures that the audition proceeds smoothly without the candidate ever having to speak
    -(often) removal of high heels by female candidates, either by (candidate’s) choice or (proctor’s) request

    Some symphonies use a screen for every round of the audition; some use it only for preliminary rounds; some don’t use it at all.

    The blind submission process should be considerably easier for screenplay submissions, given that the physical presence of the artist is not necessary. Competitions simply ask for a title page with no personally identifying information and assign numbers to each script. There’s no excuse to have a competition without a blind submission policy unless they just want to know such information going into a script and let it influence their reading.

    That's not really touching on my experience, I suppose; that could fill up a whole ‘nother post. But I’ll pause for others...

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    1. Many thanks Asmara! Now I'm wondering about your own experience of the blind and not-blind audition process. Does the blind audition 'work' for you? Give you more confidence in performing and in the decisions made? Totally agree with you re blind submission for screenplays and as a reader, in a small country, I'm a whole lot happier *not* knowing whose screenplay it is. Anyway, looking forward to more about your experiences, as a musician and writer! And I wonder if there will ever be a day when people pitch their projects anonymously – that should be possible too, but is it necessary?

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  4. Hi Shaula, Hi Marian, thanks so much for this post. It chimes strongly with my own research into the lack of female screenwriters. At the heart of what I am discovering is how film industries maintain that they are fair and open and only care about the talent and merit of individuals and their projects. So why are most screenwriters and directors and other key creative positions on films still a majority of white, middle and upper class men? Having worked for many years in the UK film industry, I’m not aware of anyone being openly sexist or racist, so implicit bias is clearly playing a part in subjective decisions about exactly who is talented and whose stories have merit. Yesterday I met with a class of 10 filmmaking students to talk to them about developing their scripts. Seven of them were female. Only one of the three men was white. It simply isn’t the case that white men are the only ones interested in these careers. Of course this is a complex issue and this is just one part of it, but considering I’m uncovering entrenched perceptions that male and female screenwriters have different strengths and interests (in the face of evidence to the contrary), and the fact that most successes involving female creatives or female characters are still received as a ‘surprise hit’, I believe it’s time decision makers begun to recognise their own implicit bias and, most importantly, that it may not be shared by a large proportion of the ticket-buying public.

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    1. > At the heart of what I am discovering is how film industries maintain that they are fair and open and only care about the talent and merit of individuals and their projects.

      That's an important point. It's extremely difficult to to tackle a problem that people don't/won't acknowledge exists. In the US, the film industry likes to perceive itself as extremely progressive--and when we discuss the regressive nature of attitudes and behaviours towards women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups, it is easy for individuals in the industry to perceive those discussions as a personal attack on their identity.

      That's one of the reasons why I'm a fan of (quality) data: I've never seen data change someone's mind directly, but getting data into the public discourse can create an environment conducive to and supportive of change.

      > I believe it’s time decision makers begun to recognise their own implicit bias...

      Amen. How do we accomplish this? Collecting/analyzing/sharing data is a start. What else can we do?

      In a way the whole conversation reminds me of the fight in healthcare to get doctors to wash their hands. You can't solve a problem that people don't understand to exist; people won't cooperate if they perceive a proposed solution as a personal attack or inconvenience...

      Ironically, nothing could be further from a personal attack. No one's pointing a finger and saying anyone is a "bad person". We ALL exhibit implicit bias. Acknowledging implicit bias and taking steps to counter it is about living up to who we want to be.

      In the language of Hollywood: it's not about villains, it's about heroes.

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  5. Yes, data alone won't change a person if they're not even aware of what they're doing. It's too easy to think the problem lies elsewhere or to believe that things are changing naturally. It's important to bring these issues up to a level of conscious debate and to continue to have these conversations. However, I'm not sure how we can speed up the rate at which decision makers begin to recognise their own implicit bias. For me, the faster solution is to ensure that the decision maker themselves are diverse, so that at least everyone has a chance to find someone powerful who is biased in their favour.

    I love your healthcare analogy. I look forward to the day where everyone recognises their implicit bias and takes steps to compensate without a second thought.

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  6. Yes, I like the healthcare analogy too! And I'm interested in how to speed things up. I'm not sure diverse decision makers make much difference, unless they're well-informed, prepared to work hard to change themselves and to challenge others *and accountable*, for drawing on a diverse talent pool and considering diverse audiences. For instance, being a woman doesn't necessarily mean that I'm biased towards other women. One of my own biases, that continues even though I've recognised it for years, is towards 'golden boys' (of whatever race, culture or sexuality), those talented, charming amusing and ambitious men who sustain and extend the master narrative. I've observed that other women decisionmakers (and women who interact with their equivalents in other roles and in other professions) love them too; and remain profoundly supportive of them even when their behaviour is 'difficult'. A related issue is that women decision makers may also prefer to support women's projects about men, instead of our projects about women. Blind script submissions, I believe, are invaluable in helping to counterbalance these – and similar – ingrained patterns of behaviour.

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    1. Yes, when people think about implicit bias, many of us tend to assume it works on a basis of in-group vs out-group, where we favour people like ourselves and are prejudiced against those who differ. But in practice, implicit bias tends to be more about dominant group vs marginalized group, where most of us side with people who belong to dominant social groups over marginalized people, regardless of which group we belong to ourselves.

      Now I'm strongly in favor of more diversity among decision-makers--there are numerous studies that demonstrate the advantages of diverse teams and organizations, even if canceling implicit bias isn't one of them.

      When you think about it, we ALL swim in a toxic sea of limiting narratives about whose voices deserve privileging; who is a hero and who is a villain; who is fully human and who is an object, a prize or a monster, etc. It's no surprise if we show the influence of those narratives in our unconscious behavior--even when it means we're working against our own interests. There's some powerful programming at work: stories form our culture.

      On the positive side, changing those narratives in pop culture makes a huge step towards reducing implicit bias and other forms of prejudice on a massive scale. One way we can get more stories from more points of view about more diverse people into the pop culture mainstream is by instituting blind submissions in our filtering processes.

      There's lots of work to be done, as this is a social problem, not a "culture industry" problem, and blind submissions aren't a cure all--but they're certainly a powerful tool.

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    2. > there are numerous studies that demonstrate the advantages of diverse teams and organizations, even if canceling implicit bias isn't one of them.

      I just put my hands on a great link and wanted to back up that statement:

      The data on diversity by Beryl Nelson in Communications of the ACM, Vol. 57 No. 11, Pages 86-95
      10.1145/2597886

      A great resource for anyone who wants to make the pragmatic case for diversity.

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    3. O great! Many thanks. Resources for pragmatic cases are so necessary!

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  7. I want to add that in my discussions about this article with people over the past week, one theme that keeps coming up is the comment that for contests to have any integrity (in any field), they absolutely have to use blind submissions. I've heard that from writers and from editors. I was delighted to learn that amongst people I know the sentiment is so wide-spread.

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    1. Terrific, huh? I'm still wondering how blind submissions can be adapted to presenting pitches, and applying for government funding to develop and or produce films. Because these are also aspects of 'competition' and processes where gender affects outcomes. Always a dreamer--

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  8. There's an excellent article and round up of racial bias studies in the New York Times this weekend by University of Chicago researcher Sendhil Mullainthan:

    Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions

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  9. Here's yet another study that makes the case for blind submissions:

    Gender bias found in how scholars review scientific studies

    > A scientist's gender can have a big impact on how other researchers perceive his or her work, according to a new study.

    > Young scholars rated publications supposedly written by male scientists as higher quality than identical work identified with female authors.

    > The research found that graduate students in communication -- both men and women -- showed significant bias against study abstracts they read whose authors had female names like "Brenda Collins" or "Melissa Jordan."

    > These students gave higher ratings to the exact same abstracts when the authors were identified with male names like "Andrew Stone" or "Matthew Webb."

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    1. Thanks a million, Shaula, for both these comments. You've created an amazing resource here and I – and I imagine others – very much appreciate the updates.

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  10. I don't know if you've seen it yet but there is an incredible story on the new FilmFeminist site that illustrates everything we're talking about:

    Being Roger White

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    1. I'm loving Film Feminist and am off to look at Being Roger White right now! Many thanks! :)

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  11. In today's news, and this one is a corker:

    Study shows girls get better scores on math tests when teachers can't see their names (really)

    How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls From Math and Science

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  12. Author Catherine Nichols reports on her experience submitting her work to agents under a male pen name. A must read not just for women and other marginalized writers but especially for creative gatekeepers:

    Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name

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