Ballet Slippers, Diverse Hiring, Biased Tech

July 26, 2018

When essayist and mom of color Jenine Holmes brought her daughter to buy ballet tights after an audition at the Dance Theater of Harlem, the store clerk raised an eye-opening point: the importance of matching tights and slippers to the ballerina’s skin tone. “Back then no one considered my skin tone,” Holmes muses, reflecting on what ballet was like for her as a child. She marvels at Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, for daring to break the tradition of pink tights and toe shoes back in 1969 and using dyes and pressed powder to match gear to dancers’ individual skin tones. Holmes believes that “to have a beloved art form reflected back in body shapes and hues that mirror yours is powerful.” She hopes that her daughter, along with other dancers of color, will serve as “inspiration through their tights, their bodies, their being” and has found her own role amidst this revolution. “As a woman of color who has for years mixed foundation to match my skin tone as an act of self-love,” she writes, “I view tinting ballet shoes as an act of love for my daughter.”

When Pink Ballet Slippers Won’t Do, by Jenine Holmes of the New York Times

 

In order for academic departments to be diverse, there has to be a diverse candidate pool to hire from—a challenge many search committees face when looking for new faculty members. According to Professors Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian, the first step is expanding the qualifications listed on faculty job descriptions, since “every narrow qualification that is specified will lead some potential applicants to select themselves out of the pool of possible applicants.” This is especially the case with women and others from underrepresented groups. Stewart and Valian also suggest replacing terms that carry gendered connotations in job postings—using “capable” instead of “demanding,” for instance—and describing a broad range of possible topics and courses the applicant will teach, instead of a “specific and limited set.” Other strategies for diverse hiring include conducting open searches and demonstrating institutional commitment to diversity in job descriptions. According to Stewart and Valian, the ultimate goal of search committees should be to “[identify] candidates who are different from existing faculty” and develop strategies to achieve that goal.

Recruiting Diverse and Excellent New Faculty, by Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian of Inside Higher Ed

 

In a recent poll of 2,100 adults, 63% agreed that “technology is doing more to justify biased decisions than to remove bias from decision-making” and 70% agreed that “tech does more to amplify people’s biases than diminish them.” Interestingly, 68% of respondents said that it’s the people who make the technology—and not the technology itself—that introduces bias. Examples of biased technology include Google image search algorithms that show only older white men for the search term “CEO” and Microsoft A.I. bots that chatroom users can teach to be racist and homophobic. Many tech leaders say the answer to biased tech is diversifying the industry. The idea is, if white men are the only ones developing technologies, tech products will continue to reflect the bias white men carry. Bärí Williams, legal and operations adviser at Owl, sums up his stance: “The output is only as good as the input.”

70% of Americans Think Technology Increases People’s Bias, by Kristen Bellstrom