Words and Biases


In this week’s spotlight I wish to discuss the nature of bias, particularly those biases that most fail to recognize as a bias at all. Last week I read and shared a new study that showed that men have a working advantage over women in turns of promotional identity, in part simply because of how and when we use surnames. For example, “When talking about famous people, do you say “Darwin” but “Marie Curie?” Dickens but Emily Dickinson? Shakespeare but Jane Austen? What’s in a name—or part of a name—matters.” 1

In eight different studies, research at Cornell University yielded some very interesting facts about the use of surnames. Referring to the sort of biased judgment that arises as a result of referring to men by their last name but women by their full name, Melissa Ferguson, professor and chair of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, had this to say, “This sort of judgment could result in more recognition, awards, funding and other career benefits, and suggests that a subtle difference in the way we talk about women and men might lead to bias.”2

Think about our culture for a moment. We’re all aware of biases that potentially exist due to our socialization having to do with race, color, creed, and so forth; but how often do we stop to think about the everyday use of language and how it predisposes bias?

The Implicit Association Test developed at Harvard University evaluates various biases and you can take the test on line for free. What it often fails at informing us is how many of these biases are perpetuated by the language we use.

Language that uses labels defines a conversation. When we say someone is white or black, etc, we have added a dimension to the fact that we’re speaking about human beings. A recent FB post stated that the person posting was proud to be white. What does that communicate to any semi-sensitive person? I answered this post with this statement of my own, “I am grateful for life and proud to be human but what difference does color mean? Racism will continue to exist until we stop differentiating people according to the color of their skin.”

I think we should make a conscious effort to minimize and/or eliminate labels that define difference between people as much as we can reasonably do so. Until we do, we will be forever dividing ourselves against ourselves. My thoughts anyway, what are yours?
Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor
Provocative Enlightenment
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions
www.eldontaylor.com

Sources:

  1. 1Stav Atir, M. J. F. 2018. “The Gender Bias of Names: Surnames Standing Solo Gives Men Advantage.” Science Daily. July 2, 2018.
  2. Ibid.