Unconscious bias, power, and silence

A #Sausagefest for Poor Allies
Sifting through the debris after a cat 5 twitter storm

Author: Alyoscia D'Onofrio Senior Director, Governance @theIRC Work on / write about #accountability #aid #cash #displacement #governance #refugees #services #urban #voice, etc.

Feb 8 - 8 min read

I want to reflect on unconscious bias, power, and silence. In aid, development, and the work place. In me. And to look at what we, as aid and development practitioners, can do to call out and address the habits that perpetuate gender relations of discrimination and inequality in our work and our lives.

I’ve been inspired to do so by two recent, thoughtful blog posts from Alice Evans and Macartan Humphreys, which I hope you’ve read or will read on their own terms.

But this story starts with another post, by an established development opinion-leader about the opinions of another established development opinion-leader summarising established opinion-leading books on development. No prizes for guessing that most of the people in this story are men.

On the 10th January, Duncan Green, Oxfam’s Senior Adviser and blogger-in-chief, posted a short, chatty piece paraphrasing Stefan Dercon, DFID’s Former Chief Economist, summarising leading (more on this word later) authors on development thinking. Billed as “10 top thinkers on Development”, including one woman co-author, it kicked off a category 5 twitter storm, albeit within the teacup that is development blogging.

Many commentators critically noted the absence of women and people from the global south, suggesting additional or alternative authors. Alice Evans called it a #Sausagefest and the hashtag stuck. Duncan challenged her to write an alternative. Alice, accepted, noting the gender politics of asking a woman to fix male bias:

Despite this, Alice rapidly and graciously wrote a brilliant, well-structured, highly informative post that went up on the FP2P blog the following day:

A post that not only delivered on the “what’s missing” challenge from Duncan, but did so in a way that suggested the practical negative consequences that flow from not taking women’s ideas and insights seriously. It’s well worth reading and re-reading. I learnt a lot about my own ignorance of female authors in domains that I am supposed to be an ‘expert’ in. I know I’m not alone in having a newly expanded reading list as a result.

Reflection 1: I have male bias blinkers that I was/am unaware of. I knew every one of the books listed in Duncan’s and very few of those in Alice’s post, despite some of those in the latter list being more relevant to me doing my job well.
Reflection 2: male bias is negatively affecting my professional capabilities.

Reflection 3: this also makes me a poor ally to female colleagues. Whatever my intentions, if I am, from my position of power, reproducing the habit of paying much more attention to male authors, how exactly am I helping to challenge well-established gender relations of inequality? How am I demonstrating that I value the words and deeds of female thinkers, practitioners and colleagues in my field? How does this sit with my self-image of someone who strives to speak truth to power?

The #Sausagefest debate didn’t end there.

Framing and defending male power

At the conclusion of Alice’s post, Duncan wrote “So go on then, who’s she forgotten?”, which, given the gender politics of asking a woman to correct male bias and oversight, read very much like an attempt to undermine her post. The comments section below Alice’s post, and some of the related twitter exchanges, responded to this and other ways in which the different framing of the two posts reinforced male power and privilege, while undermining Alice’s intervention. It’s impossible to do justice to the scale and scope of this rapidly swirling debate, but by far the most thorough autopsy of the power dynamics that I’ve read comes from Maya Forstater, on the FP2P blog itself and on twitter. Here’s an extract, but do read the full version, it’s a brilliant blog post in itself:

Framing and language matter hugely in politics of inclusion and exclusion. This should come as no surprise to those of us who study and interact with organisations and institutions in conflict-impacted settings. But it’s hard to turn the analysis back on ourselves.

The power of language was at play not only in how the two consecutive posts were set up, but also in the words used to describe the so-called ‘top-ten’ in Duncan’s original post. Something that jumped out at me was the description of Paul Collier as having “more mud on his boots than many of the others” (which I assume was a quote or paraphrase from Stefan Dercon’s presentation), with it’s suggestion of ‘man of action in the field’. This is a slight red rag to a bull because it reminded me of a time I had mud on my boots (admittedly from being a tourist at Lake Elmenteita) and was reading Collier’s bestselling Bottom Billion, in which he ascribes a land border with Somalia to Uganda (on page 55 if you don’t believe me, right before he issues the immortal line “perhaps you could take a look on a map” — yeah Paul, clean your boots, look at a map). But I digress: it’s hard to imagine an established man at the top of his profession describe a female colleague as having ‘more mud on her boots than many of the others’. Or maybe that’s just my biases again.
Reflection 4: I need to think more about the words I habitually use and go out of my way to subvert gendered language patterns.

Male power was defended in other ways during this brief twitter cyclone. There were public and private messages to Alice to tone it down, back off, and let go. Other men, myself included, stayed silent during the debate when we could have spoken up. I know why I did: late to the party, I was playing catch-up and wanted to ‘reflect properly’ on what was going on. I suspect I was also held back by the recent self-realisation that I exhibit strong male-pattern behaviour of thinking my views on a subject are of interest to others, even when I’m not as well-informed as I should be. The trouble is that procrastination bleeds into inaction very easily, and as a result I failed to be a good ally to the women that were correcting male biases, even when Alice nudged me.

The irony was that I had just read with great interest Macartan Humphrey’s reflection on the issue of men being poor allies in his recent blog post on gender discrimination in political science. As with Alice’s post and Maya’s comments, this is well worth reading and re-reading. A relevant extract:

Male colleagues might recognize and respond to extreme instances of discrimination, or try to think through structural responses to gender inequalities, but they shrug off everyday instances of discrimination … They profess themselves progressive but don’t pay a cost to right inequalities.

Reflection 5: I need to stand-up in a timely and public manner and be a better ally. Which is part of the motivation for this post, notwithstanding its lack of timeliness.

Being better allies: calling-out, stepping-up, self-critique

There are two other reasons for this post. One is scale of application, or the storm in a teacup reference above. To be clear, the teacup was not meant to indicate that I think the debate unimportant, just that it touched a relatively small audience. Although this was an intense debate for the people involved, I suspect that very few of the 10,000 plus staff in my own organisation are aware of it. In fact none of the twitter-following, blog-reading people I’ve mentioned it to knew what I was talking about. So I’ve put this up on our intranet for discussion too. The issues involved are so relevant to our daily practice: who do we listen to? who do we ignore? what words do we use to praise or marginalise our colleagues’ contributions? do we treat women differently? do we allow age and gender, citizenship and class to blinker us?

The second reason is more about time and forgetting. This was an important, intense, but short-lived debate. It’s not the first time that issues like this are raised in the sector and it certainly won’t be the last. It serves us all well to reflect on what we can do differently, to be better allies to one another and to avoid repeating the mistakes of yesterday.

Finally, you might be forgiven for thinking that I think Duncan Green is somehow anti-feminist. I don’t. Here’s the thing: like many people reading and commenting on this saga, I have witnessed, appreciated, and benefited from Duncan’s work in opening up space for marginalised voices and perspectives to have greater influence in debates on aid and development. What needed calling out and addressing was male bias behaviour, irrespective of who was practicing it.

We’ve all experienced the gap between our beliefs and our own actions, or our actions in general and our actions at a specific juncture. I am fortunate for being surrounded by inspirational women: gracious, rigorous critical thinkers, from my wife to my colleagues. Still, despite the support network, I regularly make mistakes that I wish I could take back. A misplaced word, an interruption, an oversight, an implied lack of respect. One’s own biases and blind-spots are the hardest to see and address.

Reflection 6 / Commitment: I will stand-up and call-out male bias and other forms of discrimination and strive to be a better ally to women and colleagues from the global south. I will read my expanded reading list and keep trying to challenge my biases. I will strive not to take it personally when I am held to account for failing to do any and all of the above. I hope you’ll join me.

Author Alyoscia D'Onofrio, original blog post.

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