Thursday, December 02, 2004

Being Judged on Merit Alone

This is probably very unfair, but the impetus for this post came from something on Kos, specifically his discussion about how he has selected his new guest bloggers:

I also refused to take sex, race, or creed into consideration. Each writer was chosen on their merits. I am sensitive to the lack of female voices on the front page, but given the surprising diversity of the front-page voices at this site over the past two+ years, I don't feel the need to apologize.

What Kos is saying is that the women posters weren't good enough to be on his front page in any large numbers. This may be true. But there are at least two problems with the "merit" argument in this context: First, how do we even know the sex, race or creed of posters on the internet? And second, how do we define merit so that it has absolutely nothing to do with such characteristics as sex or race?

The first of these arguments may not be valid if Kos has met all the guest bloggers he considered in person, but it is important otherwise. Now, I tell you that I'm a goddess, and that makes most people assume that I'm a woman. But you don't know whether that's true or not. I might be a teenage boy blogging in my mother's basement with my baseball hat backwards, chugging down a few beers while perusing porn sites. Or I might be a mouth-breather. Or I might be a real goddess, of course. There's no way of knowing for sure.

So in general when we talk about the possible sex or race of a poster we are relying on the cues the poster gives us, and then this information is combined with our preconceptions about gender or race in our minds. The result is not necessarily one which allows for some neutral judging of merit. I sort of regret that I didn't call this blog Brawny Bob for Christ. It would have been interesting to see how I would have fared under that moniker.

The second point about judging merit is more generally valid. Wingnuts always tell us that they go by pure merit when they exclude women and blacks from various high posts, and anything that wingnuts use should make us a little bit worried. For what is pure merit and how do we recognize it?

It's hard to do. That's why there are always books about long-forgotten geniuses and their work which is now forgotten or misattributed. Merit always needs self-promotion and advertizing, and it helps to know how the system works. The meek and the humble will not get pushed to the top, but often what gets pushed to the top is not very meritorious. In other words, our very devices for discerning merit are imperfect, and some of the imperfections tend to have biases against women. Women are traditionally expected not to blow their own horn and women are also less likely to know the tricks of self-promotion, because self-promotion is seen as ambitious and not womanly.

Some studies have shown that women publish less academic research partly because they put more quality into each publication. This is not good for self-promotion as the rules of the game are to swamp the market with little bits cut off from one bigger research project, not to actually tell all the results in one go. Women suffer from another of the measures that is being used to gauge quality: being referenced by ones colleagues, if men are less likely to reference women's work. Can you find parallels for these in the blogosphere?

Virginia Valian's book Why So Slow has a chapter on how we evaluate women and men, and many of the studies she quotes show how the gender of the person to be evaluated seems to be inextricably linked with the merit we award them, and this goes for both male and female evaluators. Of special interest is the 1975 study which sent ten fictitious resume summaries of potential job applicants to 147 heads of psychology departments who were then asked to rank the applicants. The researchers used four female and six male names for the applicants and the names were rotated so that the same resume was sometimes described as belonging to a woman, sometimes described as belonging to a man. The results of the study showed that a male applicant was ranked higher than a female applicant with the same qualifications.

Times may have changed in this respect, or maybe they have not. Just to be on the safe side, I'd be careful about how we use the term "merit". It's alluring to believe that each of us can use it safely; after all we are not bigots! But it's not that easy: Some time ago I used to spar with a guy who weighs about 340 pounds(and yes, we did look very funny sparring). This guy, whom we called Tiny Tim, could almost circle my waist with the fingers of one hand, and his general appearance was that of a steamroller.

I always knew that he was a painter by trade, so when I needed some work done at the Snakepit Inc. I asked him to come and give me a quote. He looked at me in an odd way and pointed out that he paints landscapes and portraits, not walls.