Transcendence Education

Philosophy at Work


Leave a comment

Queen Vashti Tweets #MeToo

pexels-photo-136352.jpeg

Persisting in reflection on the #MeToo movement, I couldn’t help but return to one of my favorite biblical texts for its commentary and prescience on the systemic oppression of women and toxic masculinity that infects cultures now and long past. This book is the book of Esther. While many people may know something about Esther herself, and how she saved the Jewish people from extermination with her very smart, subtle, and courageous political maneuverings, few, I think, know of Queen Vashti – the queen preceding Esther in the narrative—and Vashti’s terrible fate. The story of Vashti is a troubling one, yet hers is the story of so many women; and it is Vashti’s narrative that our country is finally reckoning with after well over 2000 years.

Vashti’s story begins as a folktale, describing in detail the great power and wealth of her husband, King Ahasuerus, and their hosting of a lavish banquet. Every little detail of the occasion is described as utter perfection, characterized by impeccable order, immense hospitality, general extravagance, and the welcoming of guests from all around the world. On the seventh day of the banquet, however, the king orders Vashti to come before him and his guests “wearing a royal diadem” to display her beauty. (Was Vashti supposed to wear anything else?) Vashti refuses. The king becomes enraged and asks his (all male) advisors: “What shall be done with Queen Vashti?” The advisors recommend expulsion, and Vashti is thereby dethroned and banished.

Though strong in character and power, (rabbinic commentary holds Vashti to be a descendent of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar), the story of Vashti tells the tale of this courageous woman objectified, raped of authority over her own body (not giving her body, it is discarded), and indeed voiceless.[1] In classic Hollywood style, the males of the narrative take center-stage, and Vashti’s presence is only apparent through them. The narrative is told and controlled by the objectifier, notably using Vashti’s resistance to harassment as a tool for further oppression: letters are sent to all the lands far and wide “that every man dominate in his household.” (Est. 1.22) Tragically, Vashti’s praiseworthy act of female resistance “founds” a new universal law to further subdue women. The narrative’s deliberate ambiguity and slapstick style only makes matters worse by encouraging laughter and lightheartedness to mask the very serious act of persecution at play.

Fast forward to 2017. I can’t help but think that not much has changed in the treatment of women since this episode written in approximately 400 BCE. In Hollywood, we still endure the mediated female presence — only 27% of the words spoken in the biggest Hollywood films are by females, and only 4% are directors—though there has been slow and steady progress. Women’s bodies are literally objects of male scripts, controlled by the Hollywood patriarchy. In light of Salma Hayek’s brilliant piece and others’ accounts of the horrors of “king” Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire, one might have the mind to ask if every gratuitous sex scene featuring naked female bodies is emblematic of the male control of the gender narrative, and sustaining the exploitive and oppressive status quo.

The gender narrative is a narrative that has been in the hands of those in power, and used as reinforcement of the gender status quo for over 2000 years. To call on one of our insightful literary theorists, Rene Girard: and what if this “gender narrative” is one of Girard’s most sought-after mimetic objects? Possession of this object is a grand prize to be sure; the narrative literally is how men and women come to be defined—and it had, I think, been invisible to the masses until now.

Finally, toward the end of 2017, Vashtis all over the world tweeted #MeToo. On social media, 1.7 million women in over 85 countries came out through the #MeToo movement and cited their having experienced sexual harassment. 1.7 million contributed to the revelation of an alternative narrative that has, significantly, brought numerous politicians, actors, comedians, athletes, etc. into immediate retirement. Interestingly, #MeToo sparked a response from men also, who tweeted #ItWasMe while admitting to harassing women or witnessing such. Yes, this is a moment of cultural watershed: men have begun to express themselves through women’s experience and, at least so far, the broader culture is following suit.

What might the book of Esther have to say about this? In the second chapter of the book, we read that King Ahasuerus is alone– it is after the banquet, and he has fully sobered up. A question runs through his mind about what Vashti did and what he had decreed for her. This is a brilliant moment of reflection, and perhaps even an inkling of remorse, on an injustice. Might the king be admitting Vashti’s innocence? Might he ask for her story to be heard? Unfortunately not yet, for the king’s advisors come in at that point and rush to find him virgins to blot out any memory of Vashti. In other words, the broader culture immediately encourages the king to degrade other women to compensate for the degradation of one.

In my wildest dreams, I imagine that in achieving a co-authored gender narrative, we will have learned through doing so how to mediate peacefully across other boundaries as well. So let’s take this warning from the biblical text and resist falling back into the status quo. I do believe transformation is possible, and it is very exciting. As a woman, I ask: who will I be, and women be, inside of a broad cultural narrative in which we, ourselves, have part in the narrative control? And I wonder how men might be redefined in this process of narrative rebuilding. To succeed in this transformational process, however, we must take decisive action to educate and to build awareness in the broader culture about the interdependence of our narratives upon each other; we must learn how to grant dignity and how to be dignified; and we must learn how to properly share authorship and power. I take Girard’s insight about mimetic rivalry to heart here, too, and acknowledge the rivalry and backlash possible should women succeed in finally closing in on the mimetic object of narrative control. But this risk must be taken.

[1] Rabbinic commentaries have myriad perspectives on the characters and happenings in the book of Esther that, to note, that are not represented here.


Leave a comment

Reduce Implicit Bias through Data Science: Focus on Islam

In the field of workplace diversity, uncovering our own unconscious bias is a trend for raising awareness and creating equitable workplace cultures. Google and Facebook, for example, are using the online tool developed by Harvard University, the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT), to assess unconscious bias. The IAT measures our response times to different word pairings (for example, “good” and “Islam”; or “good” and “Christianity”) and associations between concepts (e.g., “black people”, “gay people”).[1] Longer response times mean that the word pairings are weaker for us, pointing to an implicit bias.

These are a truly interesting set of tests that correlate hesitation or processing time with cultural messaging. These are a great way to begin discussions around diversity. Plus they have the added benefit of being asynchronous, and private. People can take the tests on their own time, and no one needs to share their results. (You can read more about or take the range of IAT’s on Harvard’s Project Implicit website here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.)

Given the tests are based on response times, it is almost impossible to complete them without some kind of bias in one’s result. Plus, once one receives this result, what is the next step? Just knowing we have an unconscious bias will not help us overcome our bias. Harvard asserts we may never be able to overcome our bias, and provides a couple of strategies for simply managing it and compensating for it. I aver, however, that we can take steps to overcome our bias—we do not have to simply manage or compensate for it. We can reduce it significantly through two different types of education. The first type of education focuses on where these implicit biases come from, and this is what I illustrate below. The second type is experiential education, which I have discussed formerly in some detail.[2]

Let’s take one example now to examine where implicit biases come from. I’ll use the example of Islam, as Islam has been one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented, and vilified religions in our culture of late. According to a 2017 research survey by the Pew Center, for instance, respondents were asked to rate their feelings toward Muslims on a “feeling thermometer”. The survey yielded that the general feelings toward Muslims were at about 48% (where 0 equals cold and 100 equals very warm). Atheists only slightly outperformed Islam at 50%, and other religious groups rated significantly higher.[3]

Implicit biases certainly come from our culture—they are the water we swim in, if you will. So through the example of Islam, let’s step out of our cultural water for a moment and take a look at how our culture, particularly our media, has communicated about Islam to create such abbreviated hospitality toward its adherents.

The Hype over Islamic Radicalism

For this study, seven news media stations were data scraped for mentions of radical Islam over the period of the last two years.

This first graph depicts the number of mentions of radical Islam from 2015 to the present according to news station. As the graph shows, Fox News far exceeds the number of mentions of Islamic radicalism as compared to the other stations scraped, which included CNN, Fox Business, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera, and CNBC. While Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera, and CNBC had each less than 500 mentions, Fox News had over 4,500 mentions.

Station Histogram of Radical Islam 2015-2017

The next graph below depicts not just the number of mentions per news outlet, but the date-frames during which these mentions of radical Islam were made. The graph shows the enormous spike in mentions in the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Mentions of radical Islam triple beginning mid-summer before the election, and then radically drop off in its wake.

Timeline Mentions of Radical Islam

These two data sets importantly demonstrate the incongruence of Fox “News”, and perhaps also CNN, with other news sources. While the various networks analyzed certainly report on incidents of violence associated with Islamic extremism, Fox and CNN perpetrate hype over such extremism. CNBC, Al-Jazeera, and Bloomberg, in particular, seem little bothered to join in to this hype.

Islam vs. Christianity in the News

This second set of graphs, as below, depict a data scraping of the New York Post, a conservative-leaning newspaper, to see what words were most likely to be found in the same phrase as either Islam or Christianity. The first chart, which shows the words most closely affiliated with Christianity, are mostly on the topic of country and presidency, also the pope and faith. Interestingly, the words Muslim, ISIS, attack, and war are also strongly affiliated, appearing between 1/3rd and 1/6th the number of times as the most highly correlated words.

The second graph on words most closely associated with Islam notably holds “radical” as one of the top four, appearing up to 2000 times in since 2015. ISIS and war also figure in the top ten words, and terrorism, anti, and terrorist, are a bit further down the list. Of import is the close affiliation of negative word pairings with Islam not only in relation to the word Islam, but also in the data resulting from the search on Christianity.

top words and christianity 2015-2017

top words and islam 2015-2017

Of additional import, we notice that the mentions of Christianity in the media peak out at under 300 mentions across the seven news media outlets scraped. The number of mentions of Islam, however, adds a zero; it peaks out at just under 3000. So our exposure to media influence related to Islam is 100 times greater than media influence related to Christianity. (And even the Christianity search, as stated above, included negative word affiliations with Islam.)

In returning to the 2017 Pew survey for a moment, the survey results additionally measure opinions of Islam according to political affiliation:

Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say they are very concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world (67% vs. 40%) and in the U.S. (64% vs. 30%). In addition, a December 2016 survey found that more Republicans than Democrats say Islam is likelier than other religions to encourage violence among its believers (70% vs. 26% of Democrats).[4]

The data charts above, by breaking out mentions of radical Islam according to news station, illustrate powerfully – even explainthe messages (and biases) communicated to their media consumers that emerge in these Pew results. At the same time, it is reported that most Americans know little or nothing about Islam. The media is responsible for the bulk, if not all, of our general cultural knowledge of the religion. It seems logical to postulate, given the strong and pervasive negative affiliation with Islam in our media, that this a powerful source of unconscious bias against it.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

It’s necessary to consider, in light of this, how negative hype (which we might even call propaganda) has constructed our biased views of Islam. Such negative and constant exposure to any religion—especially a minority religion– would raise fears and doubts about the very nature of that religion, as has certainly happened with Islam in the west.

What if, for example, a “Christian” carried out an act of terrorism (which has certainly happened on many occasions). Further, what if their religion became the focus of media attention? And what if our news media made a story out of the “religious” event 3000 times over 1½ years, in accordance with what our data shows above? This comes to an approximate 5½ mentions per day for 1½ years. As has happened with Islam, I think we might start asking if Christianity is inherently violent, too. And if we are not Christian, and happened to be unfamiliar with many adherents of Christianity, we might truly believe it. Indeed, anything we are exposed to this much cannot help but have an influence upon our thoughts—conscious or unconscious—and create biases. This is how advertising works.

If the media—at least certain popular outlets—has constructed Islam for us, then it is possible to take responsibility for our own thoughts—indeed our own biases– and construct them otherwise.

[1] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/iatdetails.html. Retrieved on May 25, 2017.

[2] “Engaging Difference: Exercises and Tips for Creating Experiential Learning Environments,” in Modern Believing, Vol. 48:3 (July 2007), UK: Modern Church.

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/27/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/. Retrieved on May 25, 2017.

[4] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/27/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/. Retrieved on May 25, 2017.


Leave a comment

Having a “Pipeline” Problem? Maybe it’s your website.

Here are 5 quick tips to ensure your website is attracting the female candidates you want to hire.

Your website is your company’s ambassador to the public. Job seekers, clients, prospective customers, will all search your website to understand your brand. Job seekers, in particular, will look to see if it’s a fit. If you are a company in a STEM or historically male-dominated industry, you especially want to pay attention to how your website communicates your commitment to diversity.

Tech companies, for example–whether a start up or the world-dominant Google–have had a difficult time recruiting and retaining women. Given that fewer women go into the field in general, companies need to do more legwork in recruitment to be sure; strategic recruitment efforts will bear fruit.  But companies also need to clinch the perfect candidate once they find her. Websites say a lot to the prospective candidate:  whether your company will give her the appropriate challenges, understand her personal identity needs, be a safe space, and support her efforts toward advancement.

Ellevest, a financial investment advisory startup, is an example of a company website designed to attract women. Granted, this tech start up is for women—their clients are (I imagine) exclusively women as they have designed their investment strategies to meet the particular financial circumstances of women. But take a look at their “feminized” version of the tech start up essentials. They offer a “chocolate drawer and wine fridge” instead of the typical “snacks at the office”; they offer dinner and rides home (hello, safety) if staying late at the office.   Other benefits are pretty standard for the industry, but in offering female versions of “snacks” they put forth a strong symbol that this is a workplace that recognizes and supports women.

Notice Ellevest’s visual images as well. Their images of their office are soft – cut flowers and shaggy decorative chairs make their business space chic and homey. At the same time, they don’t compromise on excellence (why would they?). It is clear that they have a targeted and superior product that helps women achieve their financial goals. As a woman, I not only want to invest with Ellevest, I want to work there.  Leadership can indeed look and be feminine.

Most startups are not exclusively marketed for women, so certainly Ellevest is unique. But some important lessons can be learned from their public persona about how to attract women to your workplace. Here are some quick tips to ensure your commitment to a gender-diversified workforce is apparent on your website. Mind you, your public face will ideally reflect your company’s real commitment and culture as well.  Be sure it does.

  • Focus on people. The top companies for diversity recognize their employees on their website. For example, present photos of your employees accompanied by a brief biography.  Even include some words about their professional and personal achievements and interests. For a startup example, refer back to Ellevest’s page at https://www.ellevest.com/our_story. A large company like Ford also demonstrates this idea: http://corporate.ford.com/careers/profiles.html.  In short, show your company is committed to people. Share your employees’ stories and successes.
  • Check your website for gendered language. Be aware of the language used on your website, especially in your company description and job announcements. A recent study shows certain words to have more affinity with female job-seekers– words such as community, effective, engagement, and relational.  “Masculine” language tends to include words such as dominant, competitive, networks, boasting, etc. Do a language audit of your website and job postings and adjust any gendered imbalance.
  • Have a link to diversity somewhere on your homepage. There should be something obvious on or linked to your homepage that explains your company’s commitment to diversity. A written statement from your CEO is a great way to demonstrate this, and/or you might have diversity as one of your company’s stated goals (this could be under an “About us” tab, for example). Include specifics– benchmarks, strategic plan, etc.–if possible.  Put your commitment to diversity out there.  Make it part of your public image.
  • Emphasize community service. If your company gives employees community service time, supports grants or prizes related to diversity, or anything of this sort, be sure to link this to your homepage, too. Building and broadening relationships through community work is a great way to emphasize your diversity commitment.
  • Use collaborative images. Do your best to highlight not just individuals, but also diverse groups working together. Post a team photo–  perhaps one where the photographer catches your team in action. One such image speaks more than words. It says your company is a place where people are valued, where people work together, and where they relate effectively across difference.

Do you have other ideas about how to demonstrate diversity commitment on a website? Leave them in the comments below!