implicit associations

All these years, I’ve talked about women in conducting, feminism, sexism, the glass ceiling, stereotypes, etc.; but I’ve never talked explicitly about implicit associations–that is, the automatic responses that are a result of subconscious connection between objectively unrelated things.  Race and weapons.  Gender and career.

Those links go to online tests that measure implicit associations, interesting because racism and sexism are not so much conscious choices these days; but subconscious, accidental prejudice is real.  Here’s the result, and I think you’ll recognize a ring of truth–not in what is right, but in how people generally feel even if they don’t believe it consciously and rationally.

mf-cf IAT

There have been instances of sexism against women conductors in the news lately, and I have written here about the disproportionate underrepresentation of women on podiums at choral conferences.  There is another instance that is, for me, literally close to home.

CONCORA, a professional choir in central Connecticut, is hiring a conductor.  Their three finalists are all good conductors, fully qualified for the job, and middle-aged white men.

One of them, Dr. Andrew Megill might be my favorite conductor of all time.  He is a deeply gifted musician, a sensitive artist, and a kind, thoughtful human being.  I don’t know anything about the other two guys; but if they’re anything like Andrew, they must be magnificent.

To be clear, I’m not insulting the candidates as conductors, or saying they are undeserving–quite the opposite!  But were there no women candidates in the same league?  No one of  a minority race?  (For the record, this particular example isn’t personal for me.  I didn’t even apply for the gig, though I considered it.  But I have experienced sexism–accidental and otherwise–in other professional situations.)

I’m trying to be careful in describing this because even the Implicit Associations Tests linked to above come with warnings that the results can be upsetting.  The warnings seem to be a result of  people’s fear that they’re being accused of prejudice.  But it’s not that we try to be racist/sexist/sizeist/prejudiced in any way.  We don’t consciously believe in the connections our brains automatically make.  But popular media and lots of other flawed communications from the past and present alike all cooperate in reinforcing stereotypes and reaffirming false expectations that they taught us.

So why did CONCORA end up with a list of three good conductors, one of whom I know for a fact is a gift to the world, but none of whom is a woman, or black, or Hispanic, or Asian, etc…?  Not for nothing, the search committee is made up of ten people: five men, five women.  Three of the women are “non-voting advisory members.”  This setup is, mathematically, sexist; but that’s probably not the problem.  Could it be that, deep in their brains, their implicit association of “conductor” with “white man” made them subconsciously prefer white, male candidates?  (Even my own implicit association with the word conductor looks a lot like a Google Image search for the word.)

It’s true that there are more white men on podiums than women or people of minority races.  So, statistics alone make it more likely that men will end up getting hired… making the whole system a self-reinforcing cycle.  That is why we need to know about implicit associations, stop hiding from our accidental prejudice, and teach ourselves to be consciously extra-bonus positive about non-white non-men.

Implicit associations mean that women can be sexist against women–against themselves!   I can be and have been sexist.  It’s not on purpose.  I’m not assigning blame.  But this is a real thing.  After the parade of men conductors with very few women at the ACDA Eastern conference and last fall’s NCCO conference, I think this issue would benefit from more attention.

Of course I’m not saying don’t hire men.  When a man like Dr. Megill offers to conduct your ensemble, accept the offer!  But there is a numerically obvious inequity that we need to acknowledge and work toward rectifying.  Let’s get on that, shall we?

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6 Responses to implicit associations

  1. Liz Garnett says:

    Yes, let’s. You’ve put your finger very clearly on why this isn’t something that can be ‘fixed’ and then forgotten, but persists as an ongoing project long after we’re all fed up of having to think about it. It’s wearing having to be a feminist musician – it would be much nicer just to get on with being a musician. But that needs us all to reprogramme our assumptions.

    Prototype theory is another useful way to approach how these unconscious biases occur.

  2. Pingback: Prototype Theory and the Conductor | Helping You Harmonise

  3. Maryam says:

    I agree that it is telling that all three finalists are middle-aged white men (and I know one of them personally), but we just do not know enough to make a judgement about the motivation or preferences of the search committee. We do not know how many candidates applied for the position, or what proportion of them were women and/or POC, and how they all stacked up against one another. Nor do we know specifically what the search committee was looking for in terms of personality and chemistry (aside from any technical and professional qualifications) that would meet the needs of this specific ensemble. Nor do we know what financial constraints might have limited the search committee, for example, to consider only local and regional candidates, and given the locale (central CT), this might have been a self-limiting factor for the applicant pool.

    That said, I agree with you in concept and would welcome increased diversity on the podium.

  4. Maryam says:

    Hmm, I took a look at the info at one of your links … the three non-voting members of the search committee are indeed women, but they are women in leadership positions at the ensemble: two appear to be managing staff (Exec Director and Director of Operations), and one is the president of the board. Perhaps the organization’s bylaws govern the degree to which executive staff and board officers may participate in committees; it is not unusual for staff and officers to be ex officio non-voting members. The search committee is co-chaired by a man and a woman.

  5. Pingback: masculine/feminine/other | Thoughtful Gestures

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