Collective Terms Perpetuate Stereotypes and Biases: Change Begins with Leadership
It was a sweltering July morning when an email from one of my librarians arrived in my inbox, its subject line proclaiming, “THE LIBRARIANS ARE HOT!” I had recently taken over management of library faculty and staff, and this was my first crisis. The library’s air conditioning unit had failed, and the temperature had begun to rise, affecting the comfort levels of everyone in the building. In the spirit of the phrase “trust but verify,” I walked over to the library to assess the situation. Everyone present confronted me with a different synonym for hot. It was balmy and humid and muggy and oppressive and even tropical. I contacted our facilities department, which immediately dispatched our HVAC representative to troubleshoot. I told everyone in my vicinity to please go home if they felt at all sick from the heat and returned to my office to send an email reiterating what I had just said so that all of us were on the same page.
As I sat back down, I noticed that the light on my phone was blinking. Someone had left a message while I was gone. The text of the message follows:
Hi, Rick, this is ____, the AAUP representative for the librarians. I don’t know if you know this as you’re new to overseeing the library, but the librarians have a side letter to the contract that states that if the temperature in the library reaches 88 degrees, it is your responsibility to relocate them on campus so that they can work in a cooler, appropriate environment. If you have any questions, please give me a call. Thanks!
The seemingly arbitrary choice of 88 degrees struck me as funny—why not 87 or 89?—and I chuckled as I returned the AAUP representative’s call. She also laughed at this choice, saying that the union must have had a thing for 8s when it negotiated the contract. I then asked, “Where’s an appropriate place to relocate a librarian?” She joked that they could be in the campus bookstore, but I noted that with so many of our resources now online, the only thing they could catalog would be the clothing we sell. I reassured her that the librarians could leave whenever they wanted to, so we were both satisfied with the resolution. But the telling comment was when I shared this story with my colleagues. Their response? “That’s the faculty for you!”
We often refer to our colleagues as “the faculty” in conversations where our conclusions only apply to a small subset of the entire population. As in the example above, the comments are typically delivered with a roll of the eyes and a hint of derision. Similarly, faculty who move into administration are frequently reminded that they have “gone to the dark side.” It is the classic example of a stereotype, which Merriam-Webster (n.d.) helpfully defines as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.” The entry elaborates: the word “is most frequently now employed to refer to an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.” A stereotype is a cognitive shortcut, and our brains are wired to make quick judgments that can help us respond to certain situations. But when we generalize and believe those stereotypes accurate, we have moved into the realm of bias. And when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge, we demonstrate implicit bias (Perception Institute, n.d.).
We do it all the time, and not just about faculty and administration, but the good news is that we can change our behavior and reduce the effects of stereotypes and biases. The first step is being aware of your biases, and research concerning gender, sexuality, age, and race already exists to aid in that discovery. Project Implicit (2011) describes itself as “a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition—thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Through its relationship with Harvard, the organization offers a test you can take. When it comes to “the faculty” and “the administration,” take a random week during the semester, keeping track of the number of times these phrases are used and identifying your and your colleagues’ biases. Listen especially for opinions (e.g., “The faculty is difficult to work with,” “The administration does not appreciate us”) and pseudo-factual statements (e.g., “The faculty will not teach on Friday afternoons,” “The administration is overpaid”).
Let’s examine each of those example statements from a different angle. Are all faculty difficult to work with? Of course not. Does every person with an administrative title not care about faculty? Of course not. While there are often no courses offered on Friday afternoons, is it because faculty will not teach then or because students will not register for courses that meet then? Have we asked faculty to teach on Friday afternoons only for them to refuse, or are we assuming the statement to be true without any data to support it? When it relates to salaries and being overpaid, are we including assistant deans in the same set of “overpaid” employees as cabinet members? Often when we speak of “the administration,” we are really referring to the president and senior leadership. Similarly, those referencing “the faculty” frequently mean union leadership or a vocal minority of the professoriate.
Keeping score is one way to increase a person’s awareness of themselves and others in terms of stereotypes and biases, but the greater call is one of action. Changing our behavior moves us past mindfulness and toward a greater understanding of the words we choose and how they shape our interactions with others. In this rapid-response world of social media, it is too easy to quickly express our feelings without thinking about the effect of the characters we’ve typed. Taking a moment or even just a breath before responding gives us the opportunity to think before we speak, offering words that do not put people in categories that cast them in a negative and undeserved light. Many people tried to categorize tennis great Martina Navratilova, and her response was simple and eloquent: “Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” They are especially not for librarians in 88-degree buildings.
Perception Institute. (n.d.). Implicit bias. Retrieved from https://perception.org/research/implicit-bias
Project Implicit. (2011). About us. Retrieved from https://www.projectimplicit.net/about.html
Stereotype. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype
Richard L. Riccardi, ScD, is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.