Stop voting for white men, part 2

To followup to my previous post, yes, I meant it. I meant to use an inflammatory headline, even if the short-short version is pretty simple:

Given a choice between two candidates who are close (enough) in policy and similar (if not identical) in experience and competence, bias yourself to vote for the one that decreases future homogeneity because your assessments of candidates are probably biased.

That’s all.

Now some folks don’t think representation matters. I was not talking to them. I was talking to people who agree that diversity matters but have not really thought about the consequences of that. What does it mean for you, individually, to support that idea?

When I thought about what it meant to me, I thought about a famous “simulation” paper. In this paper, they simulated a corporate hierarchy where workers are promoted up the pyramid with fewer workers at the top, that is, the management, using randomly generated performance evaluation. Even if you start the simulation entirely gender-balanced, after 20 “review cycles”, a 1% variance in performance evaluation causes a strong shift towards men dominating upper management. Do you really think workplace performance and promotion has less than 1% bias against women (or in favor of men or white people)? I don’t. People, collectively, are biased. We promote mediocre men because we just expect them to do better. We hold women to double standards about likability while penalizing them for not being as “assertive” as men. Our stereotypes about non-white people are far more horrifying with more horrifying consequences (how do you think stereotypes about black people play out in a white-dominated workplace?) We’re just plain biased. (You can learn more about bias in the workplace using Facebook’s glossy training materials much of which is applicable to non-work environments).

Of course our workplaces do not, at all levels, remotely reflect existing demographics. So we’re “swimming upstream” trying to correct this bias, while still promoting people in biased ways. Is it any wonder few companies that announce a big push to improve “diversity” make very little progress? They start in a place of bias, and to make significant progress they have to consciously over-index on people from the groups they are trying to increase representation from. Few companies are willing to do that work consistently over a long time.

So what does this have to do with elected office? Elected offices are, some exceptions aside, usually held by people who previously got elected to a “lower” office or who worked in non-profits or government and run for a relatively low office, but have significant experience. Most folks who end up Congress start at a minor local office, run for state legislature, often spending a term both in a lower and upper body, then run for Congress. If we treat it like that employment promotion pyramid, it’s obvious that the only way you get more not-white-dudes at the more impactful positions is to vote them in disproportionately at lower levels. Otherwise we’re swimming upstream against existing bias and our current biases.

“So why didn’t you just write that?!”

Because I wanted a reader to feel uncomfortable. I wanted you to get your back up. I wanted to make you feel a bit how I feel every day listening to the news. Of course it’s not at all equivalent. I’m a relatively powerless writer on a blog who you chose to read and it made you a little mad. The powers that maintain biased representation in public office are diverse (ha!), often unconscious and systematic. They show up every day in ways we often don’t even notice. They are curled up in our minds.

So I am saying we all need to vote for fewer white men. No, of course, don’t vote for someone who you disagree with a lot or who you think has no chance of winning or who you think couldn’t competently hold the office. Yes, fine, if a good friend really wants you to vote for their long time friend whose policies and personality are exactly what you want but they happen to be a white guy, joke about your token white guy vote (I do). But really think about it. Is this vote now to the white guy who you 100% love on policy worth it if it means a highly competent non-white woman who you 90% agree with doesn’t get to start up that ladder of elected offices? Only you can decide that, for you, which matters more. But let’s not pretend we only vote based on policy or competence or that we’re only voting for the candidate today. You’re voting for future incumbents and future candidates for higher office. And you’re voting with bias.

Note: I of course through out this piece and the previous stopped at “white men” because it’s simple and short and has more punch then “cis straight white men who aren’t poor, disabled, etc.” I hope the rest of the piece made it clear I was talking about decreasing homogeneity in those who hold elected office.