I won Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias” on NetGalley back in June (it was published at the end of September) and had decided I really needed to read this one first, which explains unconsious bias (and I hoped help end it, too). Then I somehow didn’t get round to it until this month, but it’s done now and I’ll get the Nordell book read as soon as I can. Phew! This one was also a loan from my friend Sian that I’ve had for far too long, so all neat and tidy now all round.

Pragya Agarwal – “Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias”

(Feb? 2021, borrowed from Sian)

As we talk about gender bias, let us not forget about intersectionality and how certain multiple identities can further stigmatise women and render them even more invisible. Yes, there is change, but it is glacial. And to all the sceptics, I would just say, ‘Am I not believed because I am a woman?’ (p. 251)

This is a long and dense book which covers a lot of research, well-known and more niche, about unconscious bias, i.e. the decisions we make and opinions we form in a split second, more automatically the more tired or under pressure we are, which affect how we perceive and treat other people. Agarwal contends that this is a product of both individual learning and wider cultural environment, which I tend to agree with. There was a fair bit in here I’d encountered before, but who knew that hurricanes given ‘feminine’ names end up with more fatalities than those with ‘masculine’ names, because people don’t treat them as seriously and don’t evacuate to safety in such numbers?

In the early chapters she goes through the neuroscience of how the brain operates and what ‘activates’ in the brain when looking at people, recognising in-groups (broadly, people who share one’s race, accent, social class, other characteristic) and out-groups (those we might see as a threat or ‘other’). There’s a lot of detail here and the images of the brain would have been better within the chapter than stuck at the end. Anyway, then we get into characteristics such as race, gender, and smaller categories such as height, weight or age, demonstrating through discussing many academic studies how bias and stereotypes are formed and exemplified.

Agarwal takes in a world perspective in the book, showing how bias works in Indian and American politics and how various examples show up around the globe. She addresses issues of intersectionality (the double bias a Black woman might face, etc.) and makes it clear she’s considered non-binary and transgender people in her gender chapter, while pointing out that there’s not enough research on these groups at the moment to be able to draw conclusions.

There’s an interesting section at the end about how AI systems, which we must remember are taught using data from real-world phenomena, can become biased from the beginning (for example, if the criminal justice system treats Black offenders as more likely to re-offend and lets White offenders, off, any AI system created to make those judgements is going to take these data and amplify them, ending up even more racist than the originating humans; if driverless cars aren’t shown enough images of Black and Brown pedestrians, they are less likely to recognise them as pedestrians and more likely to run them over than White pedestrians – it’s all pretty horrific). She does demonstrate how human intervention can work against this.

Agarwal puts enough of her own experiences into the book to make it interesting and personal, but not too much, retaining the scientific rigour. At one point, she bravely makes job applications in both her original name (used here) and her married name, double-barrelled with her White British husband’s name, thus not getting five out of six invitations to interview in one of the two sets (you can guess which). The academic rigour is certainly there, but angled to the popular science reader, too – there are lots of footnotes explaining scientific and sociological terms, and a good set of notes easily found which point to the academic studies referenced.

There’s only a small section in the back about how to work against bias: the usual stuff of be aware and don’t go with the first instinct till you’ve thought about it, consider using anonymous job applications to remove name bias, and also notes on how we can’t be exonerated by it being unconscious and reiterating the double dose of personal and societal bias. Lots of information is packed into this book and it’s valuable for pulling all of that together. It’s written accessibly, there’s just a lot of it!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 3/85 – 82 to go.