Bias in the Machine

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Here are some highlights from this week's On Hiring and Diversity newsletter. If you'd like to subscribe, sign up here.

Keeping bias out of artificial intelligence takes work.

AI isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If not programmed carefully, it can distort data and encode gender and racial biases into algorithms that are used in everything from search engines to the hiring process, an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports. So said Camille Eddy, a Boise State University mechanical-engineering student and robotics intern at HP Labs who spoke at the Nonprofit Technology Conference attended by Nicole Wallace, a senior editor for the paper.

Ms. Eddy explained how a bad data set can deliver sexist results, Ms. Wallace writes: “Take for example an exercise in word associations using Word2Vec,” which is used to train search engines. “After being given the word pairing ‘man’ and ‘computer programmer,’ Word2Vec matched ‘woman’ with ‘homemaker,’” Ms. Eddy said. “The pairing of ‘father’ and ‘doctor’ led to ‘mother’ and ‘nurse.’”

Ms. Eddy stressed that no one meant to create a discriminatory data set, Ms. Wallace writes. Word2Vec is based on how people use words online, she explains. Like all AI, it takes the input it’s given and learns from it — that is, it searches for patterns and applies them to future scenarios. And therein lies the problem, Ms. Eddy explained in her talk: If the data set is too skewed or too limited, the results will be too.

Fortunately, there’s a fix, she said: more diverse teams of designers and programmers inputting broader and more diverse data sets. Ms. Eddy highlighted the need to increase the number of women and people of color working in technology to avoid built-in bias, Ms. Wallace writes. It’s important to remember that machines and the software they run on are only as objective as their creators (who are disproportionately white guys).

Do their stereotypes affect your teaching?

Professors try to avoid making snap judgments about students, but they don’t always consider how students’ assumptions about what academics should look and sound like might fit or clash with their own style of dress, language, gender, and skin color, or how that might influence their teaching performance, Manya Whitaker, an assistant professor of education at Colorado College, writes in her latest Vitae column. If you’re African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and/or female, you’re already bucking the stereotype of the academic white male authority figure, and “competing with students’ expectations of what [you] should be teaching, saying, doing, and assigning,” says Ms. Whitaker, who is black. On top of that, she adds, you may have to contend with additional racial or ethnic bias — e.g., Asian profs are meek but intelligent, black profs tend to be loud and aggressive. If you don’t meet students’ “(usually) unspoken expectations,” your course evaluations could suffer, Ms. Whitaker notes. So what’s a minority professor to do? Ms. Whitaker writes that faculty of color typically find it easiest to conform or confront such stereotypes. But there is a third option, she says.

Short Takes

Badgered by the Badger State

First the state of Wisconsin canceled coverage of gender reassignment surgery for transgender state workers, a Wisconsin State Journal article reports. Now in a move that seems straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it’s making them jump through elaborate hoops to prove their gender, The Daily Beast reports.

What do sexism and rodents of unusual size have in common?

Frankly, a lot of people don’t believe they exist. Of course, there’s nothing like experiencing sexism firsthand — as Martin R. Schneider did when he sent emails to a client under his friend and former co-worker Nicole Hallberg’s name — to make a person see things clearly. Nicole penned a post on "working while female" that you won’t want to miss.

Speaking of sexism ...

You might recall that earlier this year, Kelly J. Baker, editor of the Women in Higher Education Newsletter, called for an end to the all-male panel in one of her Vitae Sexism Ed columns. It's nice to know someone was paying attention(ht: Feminist Philosophers)

On quotas and mediocrity ...

A common objection to quotas is that they supposedly undermine meritocratic principles, but a forthcoming paper by Swedish researchers suggests otherwise, the LSE Business Review reports. More on this next time. (ht: @JacquelynGill)

If your sole focus is on hiring more women or minorities, you are only addressing half the problem.

Recruiting diverse employees and making them feel welcome aren’t the same thing — yet many employers treat them as such, an article in the Harvard Business Review says.

Energy secretary attacks election as "stolen."

No, not the U.S. presidential election. In a surprising op-ed last week, Rick Perry, the U.S. energy secretary, caused a ruckus when he questioned the outcome of a recent student-government election at Texas A&M University at College Station, The Chronicle’s Ticker blog reports. Mr. Perry accused his alma mater’s Student Government Association of handing the election to the openly gay candidate over the straight, white male front-runner, who was disqualified for a campaign violation, because it was pushing a diversity agenda, the Ticker post explains. 

Meanwhile, in legal news …

Harassment allegations against a star scholar put a familiar spotlight back on Berkeley.

A former research assistant slapped a prominent philosopher and the University of California with a wrongful termination suit this week, contending that the institution cut her pay after she reported that the professor had groped and sexually harassed her, and that she was eventually sacked for spurning his advances, The Chronicle reports.

A psychology professor hits the U. of Oregon with a gender-discrimination suit.

A longtime professor in the psychology department has filed litigation against the university alleging that her employer pays her significantly less than several of her junior male colleagues, the Register-Guard reports.

Here are some other stories that caught my eye this week.

Is racial resentment fanning opposition to pay-for-play?

A new study led by an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst suggests that the more negatively white people feel toward African-Americans, the more likely they are to oppose paying college athletes, an article on Vice Sports reports.

Americans want paid leave. But who should pay for it?

According to two recent surveys published by the Pew Research Foundation, most Americans favor paid leave for workers who need to care for an infant, a sick family member, or themselves, but the devil is in the details — like who should pay, and whether it ought to be mandatory — a New York Times article reports. Perhaps that’s why the U.S. is the sole industrialized country without government-mandated paid parental leave, the Times suggests. 

In its absence, some new mothers and fathers are turning to baby-registry and crowdfunding sites to help finance time off after the birth or adoption of a child, an article in The Atlantic reports.

She's no sidekick.

Twenty years ago Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, a TV show about a high-school heroine who saves Sunnydale, Calif., from vampires and monsters, kicked convention and inspired a slew of other shows with strong female leads — like Alias and Veronica Mars. So why, years later, are so many smart, capable female protagonists — like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Alice in The Magicians — still playing sidekick to less-competent male heroes?, a recent column on Vox asks. What message does that send?

Questions, Comments?

Have a suggestion for the newsletter or a tip or story idea to share? Send it to me at gabriela.montell@chronicle. com or @GabrielaMontell.

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