Friday, February 19, 2016

How A Star Is Born. A Study On Gender in How Biology Undergrads Rate Their Classmates' Knowledge

You can read the whole study here*.  It's an investigation into one type of possible gender discrimination:  Do our colleagues (either at work or at school) take gender into account when evaluating our performance?

The answer, from this study, is intriguing.  The Washington Post summarizes it like this:

Anthropologist Dan Grunspan was studying the habits of undergraduates when he noticed a persistent trend: Male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students — even if the young women earned better grades.
“The pattern just screamed at me,” he said.
So, Grunspan and his colleagues at the University of Washington and elsewhere decided to quantify the degree of this gender bias in the classroom.
After surveying roughly 1,700 students across three biology courses, they found young men consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates.
Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A's, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.

The researchers used data from three different classes of a fairly introductory biology course with large numbers of students.  In each class, students were asked to pick those of their fellow students (from class rosters) who seemed to show the greatest command of the material that was being taught.  These picks were repeated several times during each lecture series, and constitute the data the rest of the study analyzes.

As one might expect, not every student in those large classes got picked equally often as showing great command of the material.  Certain individuals got many more votes.  The researchers call them "the celebrities."

How does one become such a celebrity?

The objective basis in this context is actually having an extraordinary grasp of the material being taught.  But that is insufficient (and sometimes not even necessary) on its own.

Others also need to learn about that extraordinary grasp, either by observing the class participation of those celebrities, by observing them in the attached lab sessions or by learning about that grasp through friendships and other informal channels.  Perhaps some students tell others that they scored As in their exams?  Perhaps some students are much more vocal during the classes?

The crucial question here is how an impression of someone's excellence is created.  Is it based on just objective facts or is it also affected by various cultural prejudices?  Do students tell each other the grades they are earning?  Is the impression of excellence based solely on class participation, or does it matter who your friends are?  Does it matter if the potential celebrity is female or male?  Does it matter if the student doing the evaluating is female or male?

The study uses two fairly objective measures of someone's actual competence.  They are the student's exam grades and an evaluation of the students' class participation by the professors who taught the three courses.**  Note that the latter variable also measures one of the likely channels through which other students form their opinions.  Someone expressing smart opinions in the class will be assumed to have good command of the material, even if that person's examination grades are private information.

After controlling for those variables, the study finds a residual gender effect:

Results reveal that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content. This effect increases as the term progresses, and persists even after controlling for class performance and outspokenness. The bias in nominations is specifically due to males over-nominating their male peers relative to their performance. The over-nomination of male peers is commensurate with an overestimation of male grades by 0.57 points on a 4 point grade scale, indicating a strong male bias among males when assessing their classmates. Females, in contrast, nominated equitably based on student performance rather than gender, suggesting they lacked gender biases in filling out these surveys. These trends persist across eleven surveys taken in three different iterations of the same Biology course. In every class, the most renowned students are always male. This favoring of males by peers could influence student self-confidence, and thus persistence in this STEM discipline.

In ordinary language, guys give other guys extra celebrity points for just guyness.  Gals, on the other hand, don't seem to be*** affected by the gender of the person they are evaluating.

How do we explain this?

The researchers explain their findings as implicit biases:

The finding that a gender bias impacts the perception of millennial students may at first seem surprising, but is supported by work on implicit biases. Implicit biases are unconscious associations that people hold related to certain groups. Across many cultures, STEM is associated with males and not females [26]. Interestingly, male STEM majors in the US hold the strongest associations between maleness and science, while female STEM majors show some of the weakest implicit biases between gender and science [27]. These differences in the gender-STEM stereotypes held may explain why male undergraduate STEM majors nominate more males, but females do not demonstrate this bias. It also helps explain why male faculty demonstrate biases in hiring and mentoring, but many female STEM faculty do not [28].

Bolds are mine.

That explanation makes sense on one level, but it introduces a deeper question:  Why would young men be more likely to hold these implicit biases than young women?   After all,  most male and female students in US universities share roughly the same cultural background and should have the same average implicit biases.****

I pondered this question for some time.  All I came up were these two theorettes (my name for baby theories), assuming that the results of the study hold after scrutiny by those more methodologically aware:

First, all this may have something to do with gender differences in circles of friendship.  Suppose that the way the "celebrities" are determined is in a wider circle of friends.  Suppose, moreover, that men tend to have mostly male friends and women both male and female friends.  If both of those suppositions were true, then the results of this study could follow, because more men than women simply wouldn't know high-performing women in the classes.

Second, it may have the same roots as women's inaudibility in meetings or women's invisibility as potential experts.  I have read about these phenomena and even experienced them myself. 

The usual scenario goes like this:  A woman says something in a meeting at work.  Her comment drops like a stone into still water.  Then, later in the same meeting, a man makes the same comment and it is eagerly discussed or debated. 

This is an actual pattern, but I don't know if it would apply in situations where women are not a small minority of those present.  Neither do I know how that odd invisibility/inaudibility is theoretically accounted for.

I'd love to see this study replicated and also carried out in other academic disciplines.  What the researchers write about may not be a STEM-problem but a more general one.



* I have read the study pretty carefully, but should note that the method it uses is not one I am capable of criticizing in any detail.  So caveat emptor.

** Two of the courses had only male professors, the third had one female professor and two male professors.  That most of the "experts" in these courses were men could have had a subconscious male-favoring effect on the student evaluations.  But that effect should have worked equally for both male and female students.

The class participation measure is about outspokenness, not about outspokenness-combined-with-smartness.  This could matter, though I can't figure out how.  Also, the professors' evaluations of students' class participation levels could themselves be biased.  For these reasons the actual grades are probably a better measure of excellence.

***  The exception is the last survey in the course which had three professors, one of them female. Its results show a small and non-significant bias for women to nominate other women.   But the larger bias of men towards nominating men still persists.  As the researchers note, the solution to potential bias probably isn't to introduce opposite bias, however.

****  Indeed, most other theories I can think of slam into that same hurdle.  Take statistical discrimination.  It's a theory which applies to, say, evaluating job applicants when knowledge of their true potential is only partially known. The evaluators may then use more general evidence (either true evidence or just prejudice) about the group the applicant belongs to.  If that group, on average, does better than other groups in the job under consideration, the particular applicant may be given extra points for that group membership.  If that group does worse, on average, then the particular applicant will have points deducted from his or her final assessment.

Statistical discrimination hurts top performers who belong to a group which has lower average scores, because it pulls down their overall assessment.  As the average female grades in the courses the current study analyzed are slightly lower than the average male grades, a statistical discriminator might give top performing men extra points.  But that assumes the students knew the overall average grades in the courses.  I doubt that was the case, and even if those grades were known, the theory doesn't explain why men would adjust their assessment of men's performance upwards but women would not. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Last Saturday's Republican Debate. A Review.

I finally watched a Republican primary debate!  The one held last Saturday, though I watched it from videos and read it from transcripts after the date.

It's some time since I've visited Wingnuttia and the necessary adjustment to cultural differences* took some time.  Until I was properly adjusted I rolled on the floor, laughing.

After all, Trump IS funny.  He is like that mythological crazy great-uncle in the attic who is let out only for Thanksgiving.  Or like the child who mostly speaks gibberish but once in a while states an embarrassing fact in a loud, clear voice.

But let's scroll the primary debate video to the start.  Into the room and onto the stage walk six men, all in identical suits, four wearing red ties and two wearing blue ties.

I cannot discuss wardrobe mishaps, sigh, because there are no female candidates and because men in politics wear a uniform.  I wish someone had affected a yellow tie so journalists could have written about the advisability of doing that and what it really means about the inner sluttiness of the man.

All the candidates in the race received applause from the audience in the room.  How was that audience picked?  This matters, because they booed later.  A lot, and mostly whenever Trump blurted out one of those "the emperor has no clothes" statement, such as the fact that 911 happened on Jeb Bush's brother's patch.  If the audience was picked randomly among fervent Republicans, the booing of facts makes me more worried than I already am.

Anyway, Ben Carson got the most muted applause, and Donald Trump the next most muted.  I think the establishment candidates got louder cheers, but it could be that in a small audience a few loud voices nominate.

Supreme Irony: On The Empty Seat of Justice Scalia.

The US Supreme Court has an empty seat after the death of Justice Scalia.  Who is going to sit there?  How can that person be found?

The US Constitution tells us:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Bolds are mine.  Get it?  The president shall nominate and then the Senate will vote on that nomination.

But the Republicans have a different take on what should happen. 

It's fun and instructive to see what the six remaining Republican presidential candidates had to say about the nomination of Scalia's successor in the last primary debate.  Here are their opinions on whether president Obama should nominate someone for the bench!


I think he’s [Obama] going to do it whether or I’m O.K. with it or not. I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.


Here’s my concern about this. The country is so divided right now, and now we’re going to see another partisan fight take place. I really wish the president would think about not nominating somebody.


Well, the current Constitution actually doesn’t address that particular situation,..


No. 2, I do not believe the president should appoint someone. And it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it has been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice.


Of course, the president, by the way, has every right to nominate Supreme Court justices. I’m an Article II guy in the Constitution. We’re running for the president of the United States. We want a strong executive for sure. But in return for that, there should be a consensus orientation on that nomination, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama will not have a consensus pick when he submits that person to the Senate.

Well, we have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year. And let me say, Justice Scalia...

Get it?  It would be in poor taste and probably against legal precedent for Obama to nominate anyone.  But should he make that horrible mistake, at least the Republicans can simply delay, delay and delay.  Indeed, it is their honorable duty to delay!  It doesn't matter that no single person has actually been named.  ANY candidate by a Democratic president is simply unacceptable.  Beforehand. 

As an aside, I had such fun watching that debate!  I watched it several times, in fact, because I needed the laughs (more about that in a later post).  But isn't it wonderful to learn that there's all sorts of reasons why this particular president shouldn't follow the rules of the Constitution?

It is not just the Republican presidential candidates who are of the opinion that it is acceptable to block the consideration of any nominee president Obama might send to the Senate for confirmation:

Senate Republicans on Monday began to close ranks behind a vow by Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, to block consideration of any nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died over the weekend, for the remainder of President Obama’s term.
Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, who faces re-election this year, said in a statement that the Senate should follow what he called “common practice” to stop acting on lifetime appointments during the last year of a presidential term. Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, agreed, leaving nearly every vulnerable Republican incumbent backing Mr. McConnell’s pledge.

There ya go!  This is such a fascinating example of the yearned-for compromises in Washington, D.C., of getting things done in politics, of the willingness of Republicans to work with president Obama, and other related crap.

I cannot get over McConnell's statement:  Only Mr. or Ms. Nobody would be an acceptable candidate for the Republicans in the Senate.  Perversely, it is as if McConnell is doing the nomination here.

It's the Game of Thrones.