Institutional Bias: Not Just For The Conspiracy-Minded

imposing office buildingWhen Katha Pollitt rightly rebuked the Washington Post last week for publishing an egregious load of sexist tripe, she took the smart angle, arguing that the serious fault lies not with Charlotte Allen, who wrote the ridiculous column, but with the editors who approved it.

There’s a good lesson here: bringing the focus from the individual to the institution. Noting the severe gender imbalance in the Post’s stable of columnists (16 men, 2 women — 0 others, I would add), Pollitt calls for “drastically increasing the presence of [preferably anti-sexist] women” in the organization’s high-power positions, both as a force unto themselves and as a check on masculine idiocy:

A male editor with a lot of women colleagues on his level might think twice before proposing a sweeping denunciation, humorous or not, of “women.” Ideally he would have come to respect women as equals from working with them — but if he were just afraid of being seen as a total caveman, that would be okay too.

More often than not, we paint bigotry as some sort of personality flaw or symptom of “ignorance” — a problem with individuals — when it’s the systemic side that matters most. Another recent example comes from a Harvard institution.

From Saturday’s Boston Globe:

A leading physician who rose to the top levels of the Harvard medical system filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit yesterday against Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, its president, and the chief of surgery, saying she had endured years of sexist treatment at the Harvard teaching hospital.

While I definitely had a little “hell yeah” moment seeing this story in the paper (always nice to undermine the common refrain that women who study at/work for a prestigious place like Harvard can’t possibly suffer from sexism), it’s also a sobering reminder of just how rampant and overwhelming workplace discrimination is. After all, lawsuits like this are total iceberg phenomena: for every employee who files one, there are a dozen others who quietly accept their demotions, switch departments, or quit to go raise families (whether or not that was really their first priority). Part of the problem is that sexist treatment isn’t always overt, and pointing it out may backfire:

According to the suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court, he let the door shut on her when she was following him into a room, turned his back to her at meetings, and would reply to one of her male colleagues when she spoke to him.

After she repeatedly complained about Fischer’s behavior to hospital president Paul Levy and other administrators, Warfield said, she was demoted as department chairwoman.

The lawsuit asserts that Fischer, a blunt man in his early 70s, had a pattern of problems dealing with women, once telling a group of Beth Israel Deaconess nurses that he preferred to hire residents, or doctors in training, who are “tall, light skinned Western-taught men.”

And this is where the institutional part comes in. Allegedly, authorities knew Fischer was an asshole. But he was so valuable to the hospital, they turned a blind eye to his revolting racism and misogyny:

Levy conducted an internal investigation and concluded that Fischer’s conduct had no place at Beth Israel Deaconess, but Fischer’s inappropriate behavior continued, the lawsuit said.

When Warfield complained further, she said, Levy accused her of “playing the victim” and indicated he viewed the situation as a problem between Warfield and Fischer. At one point, he told her she had created a “culture of whining,” the suit says.

It’s easy for an organization to appear blameless when its crime is passive: failing to protect its employees. But from the vantage point of the person being kicked around, the injustice is glaring. And that last bit, being accused of fostering “a ‘culture of whining,'” captures one of the most infuriating dimensions of discrimination.

It starts to make you feel like you’re the crazy one.

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