On unconscious bias in language

Brilliant, decent philosophers

Language influences what people think a philosopher should be: decent and brilliant. Does this impact on the way the field is run, and who feels welcome?

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377

Eva von Redecker and I have just finished a small study of the ordinary language use of the word philosopher. The idea was simply to look at the distribution of philosopher in the British National Corpus (BNC) and extract the most prominent patterns.

We were interested in the characteristic adjectives for the concept, i.e. those that have highest weights in the distribution. In particular, we looked at those qualitative adjectives which might indicate what kind of skills or talents a philosopher is supposed to have. This is what we found right at the top:

intellectual, famous, logical, interested, brilliant, educational, grand, smart, decent, rational, confused, prominent, elegant, encouraging, great, honest, wonderful, sophisticated, modest, political, outstanding, creative, gentle, leading…

Obviously, philosophers have that aura of uniqueness, talent and decency. Note that the only slightly negative term here is confused. Although I would have to go back to the corpus to find out what this is about, the first thing that comes to my mind is the stereotypical genius who puts on non-matching socks in the morning because he’s too busy thinking about the meaning of meaning.

I say he because, well, guess what, most of the above adjectives are quantitatively more strongly associated with men than women. Below are the results, for those who care. The figures in that table are the cosine similarity between each adjective and man/woman in the distributional semantics space – or in plain English, a measure of the strength of association between the adjective and a gender.

The qualities of a philosopher

As we can see, the word man is on the whole more tightly associated than woman with the adjectives that are characteristic for philosopher. Note also that for every single one of the terms expressing brilliance, men clearly win the race. And this is also the case for this strange little cluster of principled moral values (decent, honest, modest, gentle).

What does this mean? Well, your concept of a philosopher is naturally shaped by its ordinary language use – the things you hear being said about philosophers. This little experiment shows that in our culture, this concept is very strongly associated with a notion of brilliance. It also shows that being brilliant is not something that is particularly related to women in English. It will then come as no surprise that women in philosophy are hugely under-represented: I point at the eye-opening publications of Sarah-Jane Leslie and colleagues, who recently showed the very same effect in a psychological study.

The cure? Start talking about all those smart, brilliant women making grand claims about their elegant ideas in a sophisticated but modest tone. And let them be confused about their socks. It’s a true sign of being outstanding.