Author: Sebastian Cesario

Shibboleths That Exclude in the Name of Inclusion

The Bible can be surprisingly relevant to academic politics. The Book of Judges tells of an internecine clash between the people of Gilead and their faithless brethren from the Ephraimite tribe, who had refused to aid Gilead against a foreign foe. Gilead retaliated mercilessly against the Ephraimites, first smashing their army and then setting a clever trap for Ephraimite survivors seeking to return home from the battlefield. Any man caught crossing the Jordan had to utter the word ‘shibboleth.’ In ordinary Hebrew, this referred to a part on a stalk of grain, but at those checkpoints it meant the difference between life and death. In the dialect of Gilead the first consonant was pronounced like the ‘sh’ in ‘shelter,’ whereas in the Ephraimite dialect it was pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘sinister.’ In this way, a linguistic subtlety became a tool to identify and kill 42,000 enemies. The stakes aren’t as high when universities hire faculty, but rhetorical nuances increasingly do stand watch at the gates of the professorial ranks. Many institutions now require aspiring …

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas. In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets …

Gender Bias in STEM—An Example of Biased Research?

I don’t agree with everything in the infamous “Google Memo” written by James Damore, but I can understand why one might write such a memo after sitting through one too many training sessions on unconscious bias. I’m a professor in a STEM discipline, and like many STEM fields mine has substantially fewer women than men. Like every STEM professor that I know, I want my talented female students to have fair chances at advancing in the field. I’ve served on (and chaired!) hiring committees that produced “short lists” of finalists that were 50 percent women, I’ve recommended the hiring of female job applicants, I’ve written strong reference letters for female job applicants and tenure candidates, and I’ve published peer-reviewed journal articles with female student co-authors. At the same time, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the official narratives promulgated about gender inequities in my profession arising from our unconscious biases. These narratives are, at best, awkward fits to the evidence, and sit in stark contradiction to first-hand observations. My field is smaller than many other STEM …