Domination, diversity, inclusion (and research)

Mathieu Aubry , Jan. 2024

Disclaimers: These are personal views, I am in no way expert in these topics (don't hesitate to send feedback). I talk about them from the biased point of view of a 36 y.o. largely white cis heterosexual thin valid economically privileged french man. These are also topics I mostly read about and discuss in french, which means my english might be even more approximate than usual, and that it is very focussed on the french situation. Finally, I apologize for taking mainly examples related to gender, I do believe that other form of discrimination are just as important, and that intersectionality is key to have a fine understanding of many situations (many people being both several domination situations, often on different sides), but sexism related issues are the one I find the easiest to talk about and probably the ones I discussed the most about.

This topic was one of my initial motivations for writing 'opinion' pages, but it took me a long time to write. I think it's because it took me time to realize that what really wanted to talk about was more domination mechanisms than specifically lack of diversity and inclusion, which are some of their consequences.

I do believe that cultural norms and associated domination mechanisms - e.g. based on gender, sexuality, race, socio-economico-cultural situation background, body shape, validity, age - are so present in our lives and thoughts that we don't even notice or question them, but they have dire consequences.

If you are still reading this, you probably know that you unconsciously assume that a woman is more likely to take good care of somebody, while somebody rich and powerful is most likely a man (or Asians are good at Math and Africans strong). But I think that deeper than that, we use these categories as if they were natural, god given, as if one was either one or the other. For example, when thinking of people as men and women, we forget intersex and non-binary people, but also forget that heterosexuality and these categories are socially and historically constructed, and that they go along with omnipresent domination mechanisms.

Most people who are not identified as men have to endure constant threats: random persons in the street or their boss feel entitled to comment on their body or ask for some form of sexuality/sexual ambiguity, they are infinitely more likely to be victim of sexual assault, rape (look at the numbers, they are crazy, to the point it would be physically impossible to put all rapist in jail!) or murder by a self-proclaimed lover. They are also under pressure to conform to a social role, such as not being too assertive or too loud, not contradicting men, acting submissive, accepting to be paid X% less than men for the same work (while being told they should be grateful to get this at all, and they only get it because they are women, not because they are skilled and valued), dressing this or that way, taking care of others: failure to submit will result in more aggressions. They are also under pressure to 'settle' in a - preferably heterosexual - couple, which will give them some social status, protection and rights (related to parenthood for example), where they should be happy to take care of their partner, their home, their relationships, their children, which of course is considered as a natural inclination, not work they actually do and should be recognized for.

Beyond individuals, this has consequences on the way our society works. Jobs related to care (social workers, nurses, therapists, service agents ...) are underpaid and undervalued, while the ones related to 'rational' and non-emotional thinking are valued. We collectively seem to think that extracting more oil and building more weapons is more of a priority than taking care of each other. We also seem to think that when something is well paid it becomes a man's job: a classical example is cooking, where many women are recognized as better cooks at home, but chefs are mostly men; another example is computer engineers, who were initially mainly women, until the job started to be well paid.

Why should you care?

If you think that it all doesn't concern you and your lab or should not be a priority, think again. For example, harassment is a very real issue (even/especially in top universities/labs). You might also forget to notice that security/service agents and administrative staff are essential for you to do your daily work while being underpaid and under-recognized.

Social, cultural and gender diversity in Computer Science and AI is incredibly low.

Talking about domination, inclusion and diversity and doing something about it cannot be the second job of people who are the main victims, who already have to deal with the issues the current situation implies.

These issues impact all of us, even if we get social, personal or economical benefits from the current situation. First, they impact us individually. I do not believe that dominating others is a position that anybody deeply feels well or secure about. Performing the part of the dominant also means leaving a part of oneself (the human and sensitive one) underdeveloped. Finally, relationships that include dominations mechanisms are also tainted by it, and not developed as much as they could be. Second, they impact us collectively: we do not take into account or profit from the point of view and skills of a large part of humanity, and our value system based on strength leads us to situations and decisions which I believe to be terrible for everybody (you can think wars or climate change, but this is more general. For example, did you know that countries that were led by women dealt better with COVID-19? It seems to be because they consulted more before taking decisions. In France, the president did big martial speeches, asserting we were all at war and would win, and forbid people to wear masks).

What can we do?

Of course, I don't have any obvious answer. This is mainly from the point of view of a research lead (and I am certainly not a model in particular on these topics)

Organize diversity workshops / contribute to diversity actions. (especially if you are a white heterosexual male) The weight of organizing such events often falls over minorities, giving them an additional workload. While not sufficient, this shows you care about the topic, raises awareness, has some people question their behavior and encourages others to look more into these topics.

Create an inclusive and caring work environment. Of course, this is not an easy task. A simple thing to do for gender related questions is to use pronoms. Use gender neutral pronouns (they/them/their) in anonymous settings (reviews) and of course whichever pronouns people prefer otherwise. Adding your own pronouns to your website and social media (he/him if you identify as man, she/her if you identify as women, whatever you want otherwise. In my case, I mainly identify as man, but am also happy not to be gendered, so I have both he/him and they/them) can show you are open to people being whoever they want.

Be sure to have clear structures/policies in place to handle harassment cases.

Recognize discrimination and domination mechanisms and educate yourself (it will change your life), learn to recognize your own biases. Discrimination and domination are hurtful and everywhere (including in your life out of the lab)

If you have any more suggestions, please send them!