Sunday, August 10, 2014

The food tastes better if I can’t see her: Evaluation of female expertise

This is obvious to those who know Japanese food and obscure to others: Kaiseki is the fanciest Japanese food. No, it is not sushi or any other of the other straightforward and specialized kinds of food. Kaiseki is a course meal, with many courses, each of them having what we in western food would consider many courses. The first round of food is a bit like an appetizer, but in a kaiseki restaurant we would end up counting any number of small dishes on it. It is well worth trying out kaiseki if you have not already had it.

But I am getting too excited here and forgetting the story I was going to write. There is a kaiseki restaurant called n/naka in Los Angeles where the master chef stays out of view of customers. That is not so unusual in kaiseki restaurants, which often have chefs out of view, but there is a special reason: she is female, and some customers will be more satisfied if they can taste the food without knowing that it is made by woman. You see, kaiseki chefs are true experts, and nearly all male.

This sounds like a pretty specialized issue having to do with the norms of Japanese food (sushi chefs are also male, typically), but it is actually linked with what happens in work places as well, including important functions such as corporate research and development. We constantly evaluate the expertise of others, and in teams where expertise is required these evaluations are closely linked with work distribution and resulting effectiveness. A chef being assessed as less effective because she is female means fewer customers at the restaurant. An engineer being assessed as less effective because she is female could mean an inferior quality product – a problem for the firm, and also for you if the product happens to be the car you are driving.

So do we know when the evaluation is fair? This is a topic that there is much research on, and a typical finding is that it is harder for a woman to be evaluated fairly by others. Now, thanks to research on research teams by Aparna Joshi published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know exactly how important the evaluator is in determining the fairness.  The results are actually quite simple. When a female assesses others, she will rate them higher the better their education is. That sounds simple and logical, and I bet you think you do the same. That could depend on your gender though: when a male assesses others, he will rate them higher when they are male and will ignore their education. That is a pretty big difference. These are research teams in a university, so of course we cannot know whether teams with less educated participants have a more educated way of assessing each other.

Actually, the story is a bit more complex because it depends on how strongly the evaluator identifies with his or her gender. Again the results are simple, but not really encouraging. A man who feels very manly will rate a woman below men regardless, and lower when she has more education. Yes, lower. A man who is more neutral will ignore her education and simply rate her lower than men regardless.  So, does this mean that firms should be careful about using women in roles that call for expertise to be correctly evaluated? Well, actually the opposite conclusion seems better. Women are actually good at evaluating women, and at evaluating men, so if teams had many women (especially in the supervisor role) they would function better. You could be better off driving a car designed by a team with mostly female engineers.

Fontoura, Maria. 2014. Meet Niki Nakayama, One of the World's Only Female Kaiseki Chefs. Wall Street Journal, Aug 8 2014.