Female Science Professor's recent post on the detrimental effects of a constant drip of micro-inequities as been receiving a great deal of appreciation. As well it should. It is brilliant because it jumps straight into the throat of the "you are just oversensitive" and "wah, wah, Political Correctness, wah" and "you are calling me an -ist over nothing" nonsense that is the battle cry of the NiceGuy who does not enjoy examining his privilege*.
What really drew my eye, however was this comment:
Among many points in Gladwell's book is that the number of small advantages given to Canadian boys with certain birthdays in the hockey league leads to a professional hockey roster almost exclusively made up of men who have birthdays in certain months. He points this phenomenon out over and over again, in many different contexts - consistent small advantages, over time, lead to great advantages, perhaps even to great people, or "outliers". Why, then, would the same not be true for any discriminated against group, in any field? I don't understand why people are not open to this line of thinking, and are not open to asking themselves what they can do to try to help remedy these situations when they arise.
I've read Gladwell's book Outliers and found it to be interesting. A bit frustrating for a scientist because the reader gets the distinct impression that he did a bit of cherry picking to make the strongest case for his several theses. I understand that this is the nature of this sort of a book...we might think of it as laying out the strongest hypothesis with a touch of preliminary data before we get down to the long slog of providing deep proof.
Nevertheless, as the anonymous commenter at FSP's blog pointed out, this is a good conceptual framework to ....examine things. To think about causes of observed inequities or violations of expected null hypotheses such as, "birthdate is irrelevant to athletic performance" or "women and men are equally capable of making fascinating and useful discoveries in biomedical science".
Gladwell's book, I should point out, is focused on the intersections of presumed native talent, task-specific training and the accidents of timing that result in the extreme individual elites that we often ascribe primarily to the presumed native talent. The hockey example backtracks from an observation that those players born in the first three months of the year are considerably overrepresented at the top (mid teens) of the purely amateur hockey arc in Canada. Gladwell reasons that those kids who bigger, stronger and more-developed within age-graded leagues, because of the first-of-the-year birthday cutoff, are then further advantaged by the micro-inequities of coaching. The idea is that all along the course from about 5yrs of age up, the coaches are going to (statistically) give a little more attention, ice time, travel team opportunity, line-mates, etc to the kids born in the first quarter of the year.
For those of you who haven't run across this analysis, it has a sort of truthiness, does it not?
The question is whether this maps onto science careers? Do little micro-inequities matter? Heck yeah. Burgeoning science talents go through coach selection and grooming all the time. Who gets selected to work in the lab as an undergraduate? Who gets that magical "fit" with a PI when applying to grad school or doing graduate student rotations. Which trainee does the PI work "best" with and provide that little extra bit of training, that extra bit of introduction and promoting at conferences? Who gets put on the sexiest project? Who is successful in arguing up their authorship position with the PI? The list goes on....
I don't think any of this is news to my audience but it does give you another analogy to possibly get a point through to someone who is resistant to the idea of privilege. It also might, as with any new way of looking at things, provide anyone with new insights and perspectives that they find useful in their own thinking. So I thought I'd bring it up.
Getting back to my discomfort with the lack of completeness in the vignettes provided by Gladwell, the comment thread at FSP's blog points to the fact that Gladwell might have been wrong, slightly. This comment points to a hockey blog that objects to the Gladwell implications. Specifically:
If we only look at former Canadian junior players who were in the top sixth in NHL scoring, which was anyone with 42 points or more last year, the ratio of early-to-late birthday players over the last decade is about 1.20:1..... It turns out that the group where players with early birthdays are most over-represented is the league leaders in penalty minutes per game, and I can't see anyone getting up in arms about whether some kid's December birthday kept him from becoming the next Ogie Ogilthorpe.
My first thought is that it does not necessarily falsify the general point. If this analysis is true (and there are complications having to do with age cohorts, definitions of good performance, etc) it may simply point to the fact that NHL players are the outliers of the outliers of the outliers. And perhaps once you get into very small numbers at the extreme tails of any distribution you may need to readjust your factor weightings, so to speak. Perhaps native talent re-emerges as a primary issue or perhaps the hockey blog is right that a perception of youthful brilliance and an extra year of career excellence rights the imbalance.
The real question to ponder, however, is which analogy fits your biggest concerns with science careers. Are you only concerned about the elite prize winners? About GlamourMag laboratories? Or are you concerned merely with who will be able to land a job that lets them secure a R01 or two and labor away as a small town grocer type of scientist? Is our area of concern the equivalent of the top sixth of NHL scorers? Or is it those amateur hockey players who get a chance at the first ranks of professional hockey where they can make some cash just for being in the profession?
*it is worth pointing out that "examining your privilege" is not equal to "Yes, I totally and completely agree with all aspects of the most extreme analyses of inequity". People seem to miss this for some reason. On both sides.