Biased? Certainly. But I’m Working on It
A conversation with Dr. Violetta Zujovic, Neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute
Talk at FIAF and meeting with Violetta Zujovic and Alyse Nelson
New York | March 15th | Decoding Gender Bias | Register Here
Everything that follows in this post is biased.
I would like to write you the opposite, to reassure you, even to convince you of the authenticity of my words. But in the interests of sincerest dishonesty, and according to Violetta Zujovic, a doctor in neuroscience and team leader at the Paris Brain Institute, I am biased.
I might as well accept it. Besides, I am not the only one. “We all are,” Violetta explains.
“Everything around us is a reproduction that our brain creates to simplify our lives,” Violetta tells me. “Our brain spends its time storing information and sometimes reconstructing a reality that is sometimes an illusion.”
By simplifying, taking shortcuts, analyzing, and judging the other as quickly as possible, our conclusions are not based on the reality of a person or a situation. Instead they are the result of a narrowed perception influenced by our experiences, our culture, and our education.
I believe that I should also share here the motivation and context of this paper.
The motivation is simple: to inform you of a conversation on the brain and gender bias that will take place on March 15th at 7pm at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York between Violetta Zujovic and Alyse Nelson, the president of Vital Voices. Contessa Brewer, journalist and anchorwoman for CNBC, will preside as facilitator.
‘We’ are Tatyana Franck, President of FIAF, Mathilde Augé, Program Director of FIAF, and the Paris Brain Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for brain research and clinical care, located at the Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital in Paris. The Paris Brain Institute recently announced a $100 million fundraising campaign chaired by the co-founder of Assouline Publishing, Martine Assouline, and the Chairman of the Board of Publicis, Maurice Lévy. I think it is also essential to add that I am a consultant in the United States for this campaign of the Paris Brain Institute.
I interviewed Violetta to convince you that you ought to listen to her on March 15th, either in person or through her live-streamed talk at FIAF. I have often written about Alyse Nelson; here is an interview with her from when one of her books came out, and as far as Contessa Brewer is concerned, we have chosen her most obviously for her talent, friendship, and generosity.
To attend and register for Decoding Gender Bias, click here.
In short, I am not neutral, and I am frankly– even happily? –biased.
If I doubted that I was, Violetta suggested that I take the Harvard test on implicit bias, which I did, convinced that she was wrong about me. Violetta was right, though, of course. According to Harvard, I am indeed a ‘victim’ of ‘mild’ gender biases, the test concluded. (Sidenote: I am grateful how Harvard thus protects my certainties and narcissism.)
We all tend to use automatic shortcuts, especially in situations of great uncertainty, which leads to bias in the case of gender. To combat this, we need to make conscious thinking efforts.Dr. Violetta Zujovic
So why am I biased; why do we all fall into the trap our brains set for us, and most importantly, can I do anything about it?
Before giving the floor to Violetta, I hereby confess that I have reworked and reduced this one-and-a-half-hour interview. These editing choices are, once more, an expression of my biases. And if you will allow me one last “biased” comment before I let her speak, I would like to say a word or two about this neuroscientist because perhaps, like me, you do not know her.
If Violetta Zujovic is interested in the brain and gender bias, she is also a specialist in Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Women suffer more than men (three women to one man), and the first symptoms of this disabling disease usually appear between the ages of 20 and 30.
Violetta has worked in France and the United States and could have chosen a career other than neuroscience. As a child, “I needed to do experiments, to understand how mechanics worked, to break things to fix them,” she tells me. Violetta could have become an engineer but dreamed of undiscovered universes? “When I was told that there were more nerve connections in the brain than stars in the universe, I knew I would either become an astronaut or a neuroscientist.”
Violetta thus chose to explore the assumed epicenter of our consciousness: the seemingly unattainable frontiers of the brain.
A few minutes into our conversation and observing her sitting at her Parisian desk from my computer screen in New York, I asked if I already had a biased view of her.
You observe the way I behave and the vocabulary I use. With these first exchanges, you establish a profile and confirmation biases: the ability for people to express themselves more or less well; if they are interesting; what is their physical type, the sound of their voice, their hand language… These are a whole series of clues on the image and clues that your brain uses to build an image of me. For example, are you reassured about my ability to conduct an interview in New York?
So be it. But since that was a first perception, can I admit thereafter that I was mistaken? Can I reanalyze this information, these “clues?”
I think the missing link is that we all tend to use automatic shortcuts, especially in situations of great uncertainty, which leads to bias in the case of gender. To combat this, we need to make conscious thinking efforts.
We must therefore learn to move away from our prejudices. How can we do this?
We need to be aware of several things:
- We live in a biased world: for example, there are more scientists, politicians, and business leaders who are men than women.
- Our brain is an extraordinary statistical machine that efficiently extracts and uses environmental probabilities. In the case of gender, these environmental statistics are biased.
- When we have little information and a lot of uncertainty (e.g., you’ve never met me and don’t know my speaking skills), our brains rely on these extracted statistics as a shortcut to fill in the missing information and make a quick decision. In many cases, this is effective and saves time and effort, but in others, like when it comes to gender, it leads to biased perceptions, evaluations, and decisions.
A woman is often expected to be kind and cooperative, not aggressive, less independent, less good at math, or less able to lead.
How does this translate into our daily work life?
Let’s take the example of the letter of recommendation that I am often asked to write. Before researching this topic, I was used to writing them for all my students (male and female) to help them find the best positions after their doctorate. However, while reading an article about letters of recommendation and the words used for a man who is more of an expert, in control of situations versus someone who knows how to fit into a team, is friendly, and knows how to help others. I fell into all these traps. For men, I would write, ‘this is a person who is an expert in his field,’ and for a woman, ‘who is in a supportive position.’ We now have tools to analyze our letters of recommendation and know whether they are gendered.
So, you’re talking about what we associate with masculinity versus femininity.
What we associate with a position of power and leadership.
Is that cultural or gender specific? It could be both since positions of power were occupied until very recently, almost exclusively by men. Is it not the male, the masculine, that has defined our perception of power?
In today’s world, the criteria of power are associated with a strong person who knows how to make decisions and is not sensitive. The question is whether these are the proper criteria. For example, if I’m going to advise a young girl on her career development, should I tell her to be masculine in how she behaves, or should society change to accept people who may not speak the loudest – this may also be true of a man. So, the image of power is cultural. Can we change it so that we don’t always tell women to behave like a man?
Human beings prefer homophily; we want to be with people who are like us and always agree with us. Democrats with Democrats; Republicans with Republicans.Dr. Violetta Juzovic
Why do we have biases?
Biases appeared in evolution to protect us. To save time and effort, we have evolved to use cognitive shortcuts that give us a rough estimate based on what our brains learn from the environment’s statistics. When the statistics we learn are biased, these shortcuts are partial (stereotypes). Our brains get used to recognizing people who are not like us. Whether it’s racial or gender bias, our first instinct is to not think and say, ‘this person is not right.’ We need to make a conscious effort to get around these automatic shortcuts and control our biases so that our perceptions, evaluations, and decisions actually relate to the specifics of the person in front of us and are not biased.
The bias would thus be an automatism in front of what is foreign to a cultural environment.
This has been demonstrated by experiments in which children were asked to draw scientists in the 1950s and the 2000s. With more women scientists in newspapers or on social networks, girls now draw more scientists as women, even though there were a few exemplary women in the past, including Marie Curie. The image we have of women scientists is therefore changing.
How is the brain, this organ ‘with more nerve connections than the stars in the universe,’ responsible for our biases?
The brain is involved in biases because it simplifies the excessive complexity of our world; it cannot analyze all the existing information. By categorizing information, it saves energy and allows our amygdala, located at the bottom of the brain, near the brain stem, to evaluate risk very quickly, such as moving away when a danger appears. We establish these reflexes to make immediate decisions in the face of what we consider a threat. Categorizing everything reassures us. Aware of these biases, we must try to fight them.
By taking a step back?
By mobilizing the brain more. When I am fully aware of an event – for example, an interview – I try to judge the other person’s abilities outside my own biases. This activates more complex brain networks, an action that requires more energy.
It sounds so simple, and yet…
The more diverse we become, the more difficult it is to interact. Human beings prefer homophily; we want to be with people who are like us and always agree with us. Democrats with Democrats; Republicans with Republicans. Having confirmation bias is more reassuring than facing someone with a different opinion.
The other person’s difference is so interesting though!
We should know how to question ourselves and say that a different person, instead of provoking fear, creates the possibility of enrichment.
If we are all biased, does that mean women also have a partial view of men?
This will be the subject of a workshop at the Paris Brain Institute. Fighting gender bias impacts the place of men in society: does the man who wants to be more present with his children correspond to the masculine image society suggests?
One last question, since we accept that bias do not know gender: Is a man’s brain different from that of a woman? A few years ago, a participant of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in Deauville asked one of your colleagues if there was a difference between a male brain and a female brain. After a few seconds of silence, he replied, ’50 grams, madam’.
There is indeed a difference in weight because the brain’s weight depends on the individual’s proportion, and men are, on average, taller and heavier than women.
Therefore, there is neither a brain more ‘insensitive’ nor more ‘sensitive’ than the other?
A study had shown a difference in associativity of the right and left hemispheres in women and, therefore, a better capacity in fact of calculation in men. The study is very well done. But at the beginning of this study, like those we carry out at the Paris Brain Institute, we recruit volunteers. In this study, most of the male volunteers came from the mathematics department of a university, which was different from the women. When asked to solve a mathematical problem, the men did obviously better than the women. The result of the study appears to be correct, but the population studied was biased. The journalists loved this study and discussed it a lot. This study is, however, limited. It has no value. But in this age of over-communication, people once again prefer to express their confirmation bias.
So, a man’s brain is not that different from a woman’s one?
Other than weight? No.
Do you have any questions? Have you just taken one of Harvard’s bias tests and discovered that you, too, have an implicit view of others? Come meet Violetta at FIAF in New York on March 15th.
More about the Paris Brain Institute: https://institutducerveau-icm.org/en/
Featured Picture: (c) Nicolas Renier, Paris Brain Institute