Combating Implicit Bias in Judging

Eliana Rabinowitz
Article by Eliana Rabinowitz

Hey folks, it has been a while since I wrote any public articles, and based on some recent experiences, I decided it was about time I write about something that influences the lives of many judges on a daily basis.

Imagine your team lead.  In the morning, she holds a team meeting.  The event is short-handed, so she is a little stressed out about making sure everything goes well.  She tells your team that it is critical that you be where you are needed throughout the day, and that everyone is going to be working very hard this day.  She outlines a very thorough plan for what needs to happen when, and she has high expectations for you and your teammates.

What do you think of this team lead?  Is she in over her head, or freaking out?  Is she bossy, demanding, controlling? It turns out that in scenarios like this, the difference between being bossy and being a leader, between freaking out and making do in a difficult situation, between being controlling and being detailed-oriented are, statistically speaking, the pronouns used in the paragraph.  

In the context of social science, an implicit bias is an unconscious association between a group and some characteristic.  (There are lots of groups of people who experience implicit bias against them, but for this article, I will talk about women so as to draw upon my own experience.)  Now, a good number of people reading this are going to be thinking “I don’t have implicit bias, I’m not sexist!” Honestly, for most people, the later (“I’m not sexist”) is true, while the former (“I don’t have implicit bias”) is not.  In fact, by definition, you are not aware of implicit bias while it is happening, because it is unconscious. And having biases does not make you a bad person. Far from it, in fact, because if you are reading this, you probably have some interest in trying to reduce or account for that bias.

In study after study after study, it has been proven that just changing the gender of a job applicant, leader, or employee tremendously changes the adjectives used to describe them.  Strong or driven becomes bossy, pressure becomes stress, and detail-oriented becomes controlling. There are other ways that bias crops up, too. Men are seen as more creative on average than women, so their ideas are sometimes rated higher, even when they perform empirically worse.  Even more relevant to judging, men are seen as more authoritative, so they are considered better leaders and their directions are followed more readily, even if they act the exact same way as a woman in an identical role. This isn’t just true of what men think, either. These biases are ingrained in our society, and women display the same biases against other women.

How do these come up in judging, you might ask, and in the real world instead of just in studies?  If you ask judges who are women, you’ll hear about a lot of common situations:

  •       Two judges, a man and a woman are talking when a player comes up to ask a question.  The player automatically turns to the man to get an answer.
  •       A female judge takes a judge call while a male judge shadows her.  The player turns to the male judge for clarification or confirmation of the ruling or even just switches to the male judge as the primary judge on the call.
  •       A female judge is a zone leader doing the end of round procedure, and another judge complains that she is being bossy and ordering them around too harshly.  Her male colleague performing the same way never receives any complaints.
  •       A female judge candidate studies the rules endlessly and considers herself a rules expert, but she consistently receives feedback that her strength as a judge is that she isn’t intimidating to players.  Her colleague who isn’t as good at rules become the area’s go-to rules expert.
  •       A female judge brings up an idea to improve end of round procedure in a team meeting.  Later in the same meeting, a male colleague says the same idea, and is immediately praised for having a good idea that the team will implement.

To a lot of judges who haven’t been on the receiving end of these situations, they might not seem realistic, or some of them might sound like something that happens occasionally to everyone, regardless of gender.  Many women experience these situations not just once or twice but continuously and systematically. Women are often perceived as having less authority than men, being bossy rather than leading, and being more focused on soft-skills than hard-skills.  Men also statistically receive more credit for their ideas, and their ideas are viewed more favorably.  

There are also more overt forms of sexism that women who judge experience pretty regularly (pet names, “I want to talk to a real judge”, unwanted sexual comments), but since those a pretty widely considered inappropriate and aren’t unconscious, those are beyond the scope of this article.  (If you don’t think those overt actions are so bad, I urge you to take a time out to reconsider your stance.)

So what can we do to combat this problem of implicit bias?  The first thing is recognizing that everyone has implicit bias.  Yes, you too. Start trying to catch it in yourself. For me, whenever I was thinking that someone was annoying or bossy, I would imagine that a man or a respected friend was in that position doing precisely the same behavior.  

Sometimes, I still found the behavior problematic, and that’s ok.  Not all behavior is good behavior. Other times, however, I realized that I was judging someone based on more than just their behavior, because had they been a different person, I wouldn’t have objected to their behavior.  This can catch your implicit biases, and it can also help you realize when you’ve written off an individual for some reason. Whenever you realize that you are being biased, try to revise your opinion, or at least hold off on acting upon it until you work out what part of your view is actually built on bias.  If you are a leader, apply this principle to what you think of your team members. Would the person annoying you still be annoying if a different person behaved the same way? If not, you might have a bias against that person.

As leaders in the Magic community, judges have an obligation not just to avoid acting upon their own biases, but to call out other people who are acting on implicit biases to create an environment that is as accepting as possible to all people.  When you see a player turn to you while you are shadowing a judge call or when a player approaches you and a colleague but seems to focus on you as the authority, politely direct the player back to the other judge. “___ is the judge on this call, I’m just watching” or a similar phrase is a good way to redirect the player without calling them out.  Remember, the player in these cases may have no idea what they were doing. Even if you are a higher level or more experienced judge, defer to your colleague and let them finish the call.  

If you notice that someone is being overly critical and suspect that it may be due to bias, speak to them privately about their observations.  “Why do you feel that way?” is a good question for getting to the bottom of bias. You can sometimes even give examples of a respected and liked judge doing the same thing and being celebrated for it.  If you notice that a good idea is being misattributed or ignored, call attention to it. Instead of bringing up the idea yourself, say “I really like __’s idea” and talk about why.  

When you are giving feedback, make sure that you talk to the judge about your perceptions first.  This not only prevents ambush feedback, but it also helps you to see if what you observed lines up with what they consider their strengths.  Sometimes they might just be blind to something they do well, but other times you will identify a bias. More generally, when you think of a leader, or a rules expert, or any other exemplary quality, try thinking of that being performed by a woman.  It takes some practice, but it is hard when, due to gender or race or any other reason, you do something well but never match the perfect picture of that quality for lots of people simply because of who you are.

More and more women are succeeding in the judge program over the years, and things are legitimately getting better in a lot of ways.  There are still challenges based on implicit bias, though, that makes things difficult. Women have a very tight line to walk between being too passive to get things done but not being too aggressive.  The judge program tends to reward being assertive, but while a man in the judge program can be known and loved for being very arrogant and abrasive (and several high-level judges have made a name for themselves that way!), that doesn’t typically work for women.  The program accepts judges who are more passive, but a woman looking to advance will have an uphill battle to prove herself to be sufficiently assertive. Work to end these biases, and check to make sure your own opinions and behaviors aren’t colored by implicit bias.  The best way to combat implicit bias is to recognize the bias and eliminate it systematically. It isn’t easy, but it does make the world a better place.

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One thought on “Combating Implicit Bias in Judging

  1. Great article. I have greatly appreciated the many opportunities to improve myself in the program, and this is definitely one that has had implications to my career as well as judging.

    Just in case anyone is still wondering about other issues, I’ll add a recent example of a professional publication failing in this area: Forbes magazine recently published a list of America’s 100 most innovative leaders. That list was 99 men, 1 woman.

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