Privilege and unconscious bias in SP

My previous post perhaps didn’t clarify my thoughts well, so I’ll make another attempt here.

business-men-and-women_279-8741Unconscious bias

Back in February, I (and probably millions of others) listened to a This American Life episode about the intersection of policing and race in the US. I was introduced to the concept of ‘unconscious bias’ or prejudice as being something separate from racism. As I see it, racism is an overt, direct belief in the inferiority of a race or many races (or similarly the superiority of a particular race). Unconscious bias is best illustrated by a quote from the episode attributed to Josh Corell:

For most of us, we would say things like, oh, you know, I like black people. I like black men. I don’t have anything against them. I don’t have any negativity toward them. That’s an explicit report of an attitude.

But it goes through an editing process. When I flash a picture up on a screen and ask you to respond in 630 milliseconds, you don’t have time to edit. It’s like everybody has this gut response that is, oh, black means threat.

You can test yourself on many biases at Project Implicit.

This ‘gut response’ is almost hardwired. Here’s a more relevant example: in class when we were discussing a recorded consultation with a cleft client, I referred to the male in the room as the doctor. I don’t think women can’t be doctors (at least explicitly). Yet my expectation was that the woman in the video couldn’t be the doctor – this was my built-in assumption. As soon as I said “the doctor”, I immediately corrected myself and said to my tutorial full of women “well, he could have been the speech pathologist.”

Unsurprisingly, my colleagues had also assumed that he was the doctor. Just because you belong to the ‘marked’ group (in this case women) does not mean you are free from unconscious bias. Women and men alike share these unconscious bias about what men and women are like, and what they are able to do.

And really, there’s little to be done about addressing this at the source. Instead, I think we should alert people to these unconscious thoughts through experiments (although the surgeon story could probably use a sequel), and make them acknowledge that they exist. The worst option is to pretend that we treat everyone equally, implying that discussions of race, gender or sexuality are off-limits, because “I know I’m not sexist/racist/homophobic”. Several responses to Adrian Bradley’s survey said the following regarding men in SP:

  • “Not top priority for SLP, getting right candidate is more important”
  • “Attracting the ‘right’ people is more important than their gender.”

These responses reminded me of the ‘women of merit’ argument for Tony Abbot’s male-dominated cabinet upon forming government in 2013. As the argument went, only the right candidates were chosen for cabinet, and it is coincidental that few of the women were the right candidates. Unconscious bias was not acknowledged: instead, we were told that everyone was being treated equally.

What is the right candidate? Could it be for the survey respondents that the qualities that are considered ‘right’ for SP are interwoven with ‘feminine’ qualities? Can you pretend to ignore a person’s race or gender when interviewing them? It is noteworthy that when American orchestras began auditioning musicians behind a screen (i.e. heard but not seen), the number of women in the ranks shot up. Yet I’m certain that any panel member would claim that they were free from gender bias, their unconscious bias may have played a part when they could see the candidate.

In summary, we cannot ignore gender – we must acknowledge it, and the biases that we all carry that come along with it.


The flip-side to unconscious bias is privilege, familiar to most Arts students from the essay ‘White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack’ by Peggy McIntosh. Associate Professor Catriona Elder refers to privilege as “the unconscious, unearned and largely un-examined benefits of prejudice.”

I believe I have experienced privilege. For a case in point, once I left my wallet at a school in South Melbourne accidentally, before travelling to Bundoora by public transport (a long trip!). On the train to Reservoir, I was asked to see proof of my concession. Since I had been on placement, I was dressed in business attire and was reading on my iPad. I could not provide it, and said (rather lamely) that I had lost my wallet but still had my myki. The inspector looked at me for a moment, and walked away.

Of course, the plural of anecdote is not evidence, but I did wonder if I were a female international student from South-East Asia (a common target, as far as I can see) if I would have been simply let off without even a warning. Luckily, there is some evidence as this New York Times article summarises:

As they describe in two working papers, Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, economists at the University of Queensland, trained and assigned 29 young adult testers (from both genders and different ethnic groups) to board public buses in Brisbane and insert an empty fare card into the bus scanner. After the scanner made a loud sound informing the driver that the card did not have enough value, the testers said, “I do not have any money, but I need to get to” a station about 1.2 miles away. (The station varied according to where the testers boarded.)

With more than 1,500 observations, the study uncovered substantial, statistically significant race discrimination. Bus drivers were twice as willing to let white testers ride free as black testers (72 percent versus 36 percent of the time). Bus drivers showed some relative favoritism toward testers who shared their own race, but even black drivers still favored white testers over black testers (allowing free rides 83 percent versus 68 percent of the time).

Male privilege is probably real in speech pathology, but probably only in areas where ‘male’ attributes are valued (e.g. perhaps in management issues concerning money, rather than ‘feminine’ rapport building skills with children). Anecdotally, more men work in adult populations, and are more likely to work in roles that could be construed as ‘technical’ roles rather than ‘care’ roles (I have never met a male speech pathologist who worked in disability, ASD being an important exception).

Once again, the way to combat privilege is to encourage those who benefit from it to acknowledge it, instead of pretending they got where they are solely and completely by their own personal merits.

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