The claim I’ll discuss here is so common, but so clearly fallacious, that it deserves a name. So far I haven’t seen it given a name, so I’ll tentatively call it the “Equity/Bias Fallacy.” Before I define it, I’ll say that I define “equity” as “representation of groups in an organization in the same proportions that they occur in the general population.” (“Inequities“, of course, reflect differences between observed proportions in a population and their occurrence within organizations or groups.)
And I define “equality” as “equality of opportunity”. (One could also define it as “equality under the law”, but in this case opportunity is more germane.) But the exact definitions don’t matter that much, for the issue is identifying why there is disproportional representation of groups in colleges, firms, academic departments and so on. These disproportions usually take the form of minority groups or oppressed groups (races, sexes, and so on) represented in smaller proportions within organizations than in the general population.
Here’s the fallacy:
If equity isn’t achieved in an organization, it means that bigotry from that organization was responsible.
or, to put it in a longer but less jargon-y way,
If groups within an organization do not occur in the same proportions that they occur
within the general population, one can assume that there is bigotry in the organization itself.
or to put the fallacy in a simple equation:
Inequities = Existing bigotry (immediate lack of equality)
This fallacy will hold so long as there are causes of inequities in organizations other than bigotry within those organizations.
And of course we know that this is the case. There are differences in preference that may be due to sex or culture (and yes, the “cultural preferences” could reflect bigotry of society in the past or present, but not of the organization showing inequities); or to different opportunities afforded different groups starting at an early age (for example, poor schooling available to minority groups); or to socioeconomic class differences correlated with group membership that make some career options more or less appealing. Some have imputed differences in childhood environments, due, say, to family integrity, as a cause of differential achievement. All of these factors affecting opportunity can be due to historical factors as well as current bigotry, and all can create inequalities early in life whose results persist throughout life because they “tilt the playing field.”
If one takes inequity as a datum that requires scientific explanation, then, the presence of alternative causal hypotheses means that none can automatically be assumed to be true. No explanation can be the default option, as bigotry seems to have become. In fact, it’s nearly taboo to even mention any “cause” other than current and immediate bigotry.
Why is it important to recognize this fallacy? That’s easy: if you want to remedy inequities, you have to know why they exist in the first place. If you automatically assume there’s bigotry in an organization such as the National Institutes of Health (I’ll post on this tomorrow), then you may spend a lot of time and money trying to weed out biases that may not exist. Alternatively, if bigotry does exist and is a cause of inequity, you need to establish that before fixing it.
Finally, if inequities in, say, groups of scientists are the product not of bigotry within those groups, but of unequal educational opportunities starting in grade school, it does no good to accuse those organizations of bigotry when the real cause lies way earlier down the line. Fixes in that case would involve creating and funding greater opportunities for underrepresented groups beginning at the very start of life. The hard-to-enact but necessary promotion of true equality of opportunity, essential in a democracy, can also be combined with affirmative action—a mechanism that creates greater equity in organizations that aren’t themselves rife with bigotry.