part of the reason i spent a bunch of time thinking about discrimination in theory, were my experiences with credentialism, specifically thinking about how it has been far worse for me than gender discrimination. here are some short, caricaturizing tales about my interactions with discrimination.
when i started programming, i was asked a lot about whether i was worried about sexism or whether i had experienced it. this eventually stopped. maybe people don’t ask me anymore because the space i’ve found is so lovely and devoid of sexism, or maybe because they’ve figured i’ve been around long enough to be sick of talking about it. i dare say in the past few years i don’t think i’ve experienced gender discrimination at all.
in the past few months i’ve met more people in the machine learning industry than i have since i learned what a neural network was. they’re friendly! they ask me questions!
at my first attendance at an academic or machine learning conference, i got a lot of “do you worry that people won’t hire you without a degree?” and “do the people you work with underestimate you?”.
deja vu! how many times have i answered questions like “do you feel like working in tech has been harder as a woman”? it was bitter how this discrimination was happening to me again but sweet how it didn’t feel nearly as heavy and that people still cared. but, like, omg, it’s the same!
that same conference highlighted the similarities between the two causes of discrimination for me. a former harasser of mine who had propositioned me as a minor was there, as was a person who repeatedly undermines my competency on the grounds of credentials. as i hid behind posters avoiding my harassers, i noticed that my mind had glommed these two characters into one (not to say that the offenses are remotely equal).
my feelings and reasonings about them were all the same, just in differing magnitudes. the difference highlighted, was that one of these was a clear cut situation everyone has a knee jerk reaction to while the other is difficult to explain to people.
discrimination looks a lot like stupidity
when the subject of the discrimination (credentials) is so close to the merit being evaluated (skills), it’s much easier to see a correlation between discrimination and stupidity.
going to icml, i was really happy to find that all the people whose work i admired were disproportionately unfazed by my lack of education and publishing history. i was so excited and comfortable to get people to explain undergraduate (highschool?) calculus to me.
credentialism is much more about accurate judgement than other forms of discrimination. it doesn’t come so much from religion, culture or history.
this was showcased to me that the judgement of educators was particularly charitable. it makes sense that they would know better about how people can be skilled! funky corollary here is that most of credentialism is not a product of morality.
i’m so utterly grateful to the not one but two companies who had to come up with a new interview for me because i could not so much as approach a math interview and wanted to hire me anyway. i like to think that the charitability was a good move for them.
stupidity being the cause of discrimination is a really important framing for me. nerds (like me) have a sense (which i only sometimes endorse) where we get carnally frustrated when we think people aren’t behaving intelligently. that sense is more native to me than my sense of justice.
so like, i’ve escaped sexism and had a long break to not think about discrimination but in the past bit credentialism has kind of been all up in my face.
is this leveling up?
some of the same tactics from last time work. the “show them what you’re made of”, the “don’t let them get to you”. the “simply find a place where they’re not going to do this to you” (i recently interviewed at five places, none of them will do this [any kind of discrimination, i think] to you). these are actually everything i personally need, so maybe this level isn’t that much harder than the last.
unfortunately some tactics don’t work. there’s no anonymous hr form for this. there’s no social norm to be outraged. it’s very true that my inability to do math has impeded my competency and so the situation is harder to explain. no employee resource groups, no norm of politely calling it out. seems like some of the tools that were available in the last level will have to be recreated.
i wonder what the boss battle will be.
being told i can’t get a senior research position without a PhD by someone who knows my work well seems pretty bad. it came with other comments about how i don’t care about being productive, and how i should not be trusted on anything i say (who says that??!)
that was too comical to take to heart, much like that guy who told me i must’ve cheated on my interviews because i’m female. with that guy, i told my friends about it, got their support and limited the places where they could do further damage. with the credentialist i got only two thirds of the way.
at this extremity, the negative feelings are more disgust and disappointment. the core offense is not bigotry or ignorance but plain hatred and a fixation on disparaging others. it would be reasonable for one to not consider this discrimination, but this kind of asshattery is how it all starts! the legacy of an excuse to treat someone poorly easily is canonical discrimination.
given that discrimination starts as malevolence that becomes a burden of history, producing that fresh malevolence may be more of an offense than carrying forth an aged one.
it’s always a little personal when you’re on a crusade to get a project kicked off and you’re seeking buy-in from colleagues. it’s supposed to be hard, as it was for me. someone noticed that it was maybe harder than it should be, and they were kind and conscientious enough to ask if i was worried about sexism.
at the time i immediately passed it off and said no — my colleagues were better than that! upon reflection, it seemed that it was credentialism.
then, what was up with that extremely lowball offer i didn’t know better than to take? what about every time i was passed on for promotion? when my colleagues refused to trust my work? every time i was talked over in a meeting?
seeing ghosts is bad, they turn you to stone if you look at them! i saw sexism-ghosts when i started learning programming as i was overly cautioned about sexism to the point of it being an infohazard. there aren’t many mechanisms through which looking for the monsters equips oneself for defense.
the judgement that people exercise when they’re open to my competency is not about precision, but accepting a broad range of possibility. for me to see ghosts would be violating that practice.
get up and leave
“ok so people are being mean to me now, what do i do?”. having done the dance twice, it seems like the best way to do it is to find a place where no one is mean to you (though you should be emotionally equipped anyway).
perhaps i’m merely fortunate, but it seems like a natural progression to find places that are less discriminatory. the forces of morality and the incentives they’ve put in place have made it increasingly the case that more prestigious places are less discriminatory, and they’ll continue to do so.
sometimes people are irked by the idea that i just don’t really experience sexism anymore, or that i don’t think about it often or exercise much agency to fix it. i empathize with that, it’s like when i’m upset about something but the other involved party is not.
what’s strange to me, is that when people gave me advice on sexism it was always like “here’s how you get the assholes in trouble, be a powerful independent women, advocate for minorities”, where the default advice for credentialism is “oh yeah, you’ve just gotta find somewhere where it’s not a problem” — which is what i’ve always gone for.
it shall remain my advice, that the solution to discrimination in one’s life is to be a cog in the morality machine by not being in places where bad things happen to you.