I was almost persuaded into going to medical school by my family members, three of whom are medical professions*. Instead, I just get the perks of knowing some things about medicine and being able to attend conferences about medicine with them. Over the past few weeks I’ve attended two: one on gender bias in medicine (both in the professional realm and patient care realm), and one (University of Iowa’s The Examined Life Conference) on the intersection between medicine and the arts
Rosalind Franklin University of Health Sciences in North Chicago hosted a jam-packed, day-long symposium on gender bias in medicine. I joined my mom, who’s a professor at the university, and only went for two talks, but both were illuminating. The first was by Mahzarin Banaji, co-author of the book Blindspot. Her talk on implicit bias was SO GOOD. The information she was describing was fascinating (referencing Philippa Foot, Bentham and Mill, Kant), but even more so was the way she relayed said information. She was a captivating speaker, who infused humor and audience participation artfully into her topic. I wanted to take notes on both what she was saying and how she was saying it.
So I’ll share a couple things from her talk that I found valuable:
- “Our job is not to look at how good we look today, but to think about how we will look to people fifty years from now.” This was in regards to discussion around admission numbers at Harvard University. She was proud that Harvard boasts much diversity and is able to provide students with low socioeconomic resources with a free tuition. But she said, that’s not good enough. It’s not about how we look now compared to our peers. It’s about how history will look back at us. I think about this with regards to Princeton (my alma mater) as well. When I look back at Princeton’s history, I’m not proud. No women until 1969, and even then they were just admitted to maintain a robust applicant pool, not because they actually wanted women at the university.
- This leads to another aspect of Banaji’s talk. The best way to motivate people to diversity is prove that it’s better for business/innovation. She gave the analogy of barrels: what if we put people in barrels (along any line of diversity) and were told to pull together a team to accomplish some goal. If you are only pulling from the white male barrel, you have to dig deep, from the best on the top to maybe the subpar below. Whereas if you allow yourself to take from all the barrels, you only get the cream of each crop.
- One of the things which resonated with me is that implicit bias isn’t necessarily about who we’re subconsciously mean to, but who we help. She relayed a story about not doing interviews with journalists from a certain publication, but when one journalist said she graduated from Yale (where Banaji had taught), Banaji allowed the interview and later realized the journalist being from Yale shouldn’t have made a difference. She cited studies that show when we think about people in our in-group, we use parts of our brain more associated with ourselves (empathy) than when we think of people not in our group. She described this as a moral bubble around us that only people like us can enter. Everyone else is given the cold shoulder.
- She also said interviews were a waste of time, partly because faces are terrible communicators of factual information. She said how people perceive people with eyes closer together to be less intelligent, but there’s no legitimate basis for this.
After the Banaji talk, there was a panel on addressing gender bias on the professional side of health care, so they discussed women negotiating raises, mentoring other women, and male allies. I learned the term “stereotype threat“, where the knowledge of a stereotype before a test can cause you to perform inline with that stereotype.
The last event I caught before I had to leave was a talk by Eileen Pollack on her book The Only Woman In The Room: Why Science Is Still A Boy’s Club. While the talk wasn’t as great as Banaji’s, it inspired me to want to buy the book. And you should to! Eileen Pollack TAUGHT HERSELF CALCULUS in high school when her school wouldn’t let her take high level science and math courses, she entered the physics department at Yale and EXCELLED, writing a thesis and graduating near the top in her department. Then she gave it up. During the talk she described how, despite her doing some really incredible undergraduate independent work, no one encouraged her to keep going because they always assumed she would just give up eventually, thereby fulfilling the stereotype threat. Years later she was spurred by the discussion of why there are still not as many women in the sciences as men, and in doing so she revisited her own history in addition to interviewing other women scientists and former scientists.
Overall the conference was amazing. Glad I was able to go and wish I could’ve gone for the entire day! I was even able to see my mom (a graduate of and professor at the university) in an exhibit the school put up about women medical professionals and students working and learning at Rosalind Franklin today!
A last take away: names matter. Naming matters. Several speakers – including Banaji – mentioned how when they heard the name of the university (dedicated to the late, great Rosalind Franklin) they knew they couldn’t refuse.
*I’m a Wilderness First Responder, so I suppose I’m sort of a medical professional.