Journalism is vital to a free society; so, too, is criticism of the media. And yet SethBlogs doesn’t see as much oversight of the media’s methods as there is for other vital societal resources. SethBlogs suspects that this oversight oversight provokes a lazy complacency among our favourite journalistic representatives.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM) (you are here)
Recently, CBC Radio’s BC-based public affairs radio broadcast, On the Coast, has interviewed two UBC graduate students, discussing issues of gender and race. In general CBC Radio prefers not to ask critical questions of their guests, but when the visitor is saying something recognized as progressive about gender or race, the fawning faith in their testimony is turned up to eleven.
In today’s episode, an intelligent but deferential CBC interviewer speaks to a sociologist who argues that male-“dominated” workplaces may be more likely to nourish higher levels of counterproductive risk than gender-balanced work sites. This is fascinating research, but it might benefit from some serious ethical meta questions.
Men-in-groups-take-extra-risks-so-perhaps-we-should-have-more-women-in-such-occupations PhD student, Hazel Hollingdale, seemed—in my hearing during her interview with CBC’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder—to be a legitimate investigator; that is, she seemed interested in daunting things like evidence.
She explained that in professions in which there are normally more men than women, there seem to be more instances of bodily injury (in the case of blue-collar occupations) and strategic failures (in the case of white-collar workplaces), both of which she attributes to detrimentally high-risk behaviour:
“I started getting interested in male-dominated work organizations during my Masters when I actually looked at blue-collar sectors, so construction, and iron workers, that sort of thing, and I looked at safety violations, and occupational health and safety outcomes, and realizing that that sort of male-dominated culture often resulted in a normalization of risk there, which resulted in occupational health and safety incidents. And then I started thinking, well, what does risk-taking look like in other male-dominated occupations, stock brokers, for instance [where] an estimated 90% of their workforce is men, and irresponsible risks there [don’t] come from bodily harm, but what happens is that there are undesirable outcomes potentially, like losing a lot of money, or even a financial crash if enough people are engaging in those irresponsible risks…”
Hollingdale goes on to discuss the potentially positive effects of larger numbers of women being in traditionally male white-collar roles:
“There’s research actually from UBC, the Sauder School of business, that’s recently shown that more women on board of directors actually increases the investment potential and that sort of thing, but the Lehman Sisters hypothesis, which is what I’m testing, this idea of more women in financial firms leading to greater, more stable economic markets, hasn’t been formally tested in a large scale, so there are no numbers yet, which is why I hope to find support for it in my own research.”
Although she didn’t mention it in the discussion (possibly because she wasn’t asked), let’s assume that her study fairly took into account factors outside of sex (including occupational personality traits) that could be causing the apparent sex discrepancies that she’s finding. These considerations, however, should not eliminate possible controversy. On a meta level, a study that differentiates between the sexes and their ability to create cohesive and effective workplaces ought to be scrutinized not just for scientific validity, but also for its assumed ethical implications.
It does seem like the province of sociologists to investigate the sub-cultural forces within societies and their effects on the workplace, even if that research includes a sex-based aptitude comparison; however, when claiming that a particular sex has superior talents than another, one should recognize that one is playing with ethically delicate issues. If we prove that male people tend not to do well in groups, then—rather inconveniently to activist sociologists—the question remains as to whether there is something we should do about it? Should we discriminate against individual men because groups of men sometimes don’t work well together?
As I’ve argued in DOUBLE STANDARD OF DOUBLE STANDARDS, if it is the case that—on average—women have more success than men in a particular situation, then the only legitimate way to handle such a discrepancy would be to seek out candidates (of either sex, indiscriminately) who possess the traits that are provoking those improved results. Thus, if the research is right, we’ll naturally end up with a more effective workplace (which might turn out to include more women than men), while not excluding the occasional men who also possess the useful skill in question, or over-including the women who do not.
However, the matter may not be as simple in the case posited by the researcher here, because her results may not demonstrate that women are superior to men in the traits she argues are good, but instead that—when men make up a vast majority in a profession—there is a tendency to behave ineffectively or unsafely. Therefore, it may be the case that—even if all the men in the male-“dominated” profession have a high level of aptitude for the work—the sum of the skills of such a homogenous (male) group may be inferior to a mixed-sex environment.
Nevertheless, questions ought still to be asked: if a certain percentage of gender or racial balance is shown to be less optimal than another, do we gender or racially profile to acquire the best result? That is, do those efficiency ends justify such discriminatory means? (These are the sort of questions that a CBC interviewer ought to—but never would—ask of a sociologist.)
Moreover, have we considered alternative options to sex-based discrimination? Maybe instead we could find new measures of reducing the sort of negative risk (possibly provoked by mostly-male environments) that the researcher says are bad for business; for instance, perhaps there is a particular personality type (which happens to be more common among men than women) that the employers could screen for. As a result, we may end up with more women in the job, but not by direct virtue of their sex, but instead on the basis of a demonstrated skill or personality type.
Meanwhile, does the argued-for discrimination—based upon homogenous flaws—apply to groups that society currently wants to protect? Presumably, that is, if it’s the case that male-“dominated” professions have weaknesses that a more mixed group would not, then surely it’s possible that female-“dominated” professions might also do better with a greater mix. (But I suspect that studies of this nature are less likely to receive funding in UBC’s sociology department, and certainly wouldn’t be cheered on by CBC.)
Ultimately, sociologists may be willing to accept (even if they won’t study) the possibility that certain higher-percentage-female professions could benefit from a slightly greater percentage of men, but what would happen if they were to find results that are even more counter to current politically correct thinking? What if it turned out that a particular male-“dominated” profession would do better with fewer women? I’m not suggesting that it’s likely, but it’s possible, so before approving the implications of these men-are-a-problem studies for influence on society, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether optimal racial and gender divides are more important than freedom from gender and racial profiling in the workplace?
I’m not opposed to sociologists looking into these matters (as long as they do it scientifically) so that we can try to figure out what—in a perfect world—would be the most cohesive and efficient workplace environment, but before we force that result independent of human rights, I submit that we ought to look for a means of striving for said efficiency that doesn’t directly discriminate on the basis of sex.
This is daunting ethical terrain that demands serious consideration, but the CBC’s ordinarily skilled interviewer Matthew Lazin-Ryder—apparently terrified of asking politically inappropriate questions—could only muster the following impersonation of a critical question about Hollingdale’s hopes for her work to provoke pro-female hiring policies:
“Gender issues can often get political, and stir up angry debate, and I could see, imagine this: if you prove your hypothesis that, it’ll be kind of big headlines all over the place. ‘More women on boards and in executive roles decreases the risk or irresponsible risk taking’ and then we’ll have all kinds of reaction of a political kind, saying that, well, this is politically correct: you’re just trying to get more equality, and all of that issue. Are you prepared for that kind of reaction?”
The question was so soft that it almost fell to the ground before it reached Hollingdale, who predictably went with an If equality is wrong, I don’t want to be right type response.
“Well,” she said, “honestly, I’m hoping to get more support for this hypothesis because when 3-5% of top positions are held by women, there is clearly a problem. And I don’t think equality within these organizations is a bad goal to work towards. So, yeah, I think definitely people get upset by these sorts of things, but it’s just a reality that there’s so much inequality and it needs to find support in order to garner motivations for firms to actually hire women into these positions.”
I don’t necessarily blame the interviewee for her simple reply since the question was so empty of content. However, her answer does demonstrate that she may not merely be playing the role of sociologist here, but also ethicist and social engineer, as she appears to be suggesting that her results should have an effect on hiring policies. Or maybe she is simply being candid about her bias, and will leave the ethical contemplations to others; in any case, her hopes for particular results do suggest that she may be analyzing the data with preferential expectations. I don’t think that that’s an unforgivable quality in a social scientist (so long as they’re vigilant about keeping their hopes out of their data analysis), but it should be a concern to a CBC interviewer, who ought to have asked:
“Given that you are hoping for results that will provoke these changes in the world, what do you do to ensure that you don’t let those preferences impact how you interpret your work?”
Alas, no, the interviewer had clearly left his brain in the cloak roam and continued to cheerlead his subject. The result was a discussion of research, which—while possibly legitimate—has serious potential consequences. And yet it was treated as though it were unassailable. I doubt that a study that found problems with a predominantly female workforce would have been treated so gently.
In case you would like to examine my examination of Lazin-Ryder’s interview with Hollingdale, I have included the transcript of their conversation as the first comment on this post.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM) (you were just here)