Unconscious bias

I attented, today, a very interesting presentation that was essentially about gender balance in academia, specifically in the sciences. There are a number of schemes, such as Athen SWAN and the Institute of Physics’s Project Juno, aimed at improving the gender balance in academia. These are schemes where a university department/school can qualify for a certain award if they satisfy certain criteria. There are different levels in each of the schemes and so a department can start with a basic award and build up to a higher award over time. Although the goal, in some sense, is to improve the gender balance in the physical sciences, ultimately it is meant to encourage a working environment and working practices that should benefit both men and women.

What I found interesting was a discussion about unconscious biases. Two researchers (Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin) from Rice University studied 624 reference letters for 194 applicants for junior faculty positions at US universities. They classified certain words as communal (social or emotive) and others as agentic (active or assertive). They found that communal words were used more often in reference letters for female applicants while agentic terms were more commonly used in letters for male applicants. What they then found is that communal terms were not valued by those assessing the applicants. The basic conclusion was that those writing reference letters unconsciously associate communal characteristics with women and agentic characteristics with men and that this then disadvantages women when their applications are assessed by those on hiring panels (whether those on the hiring panels were male of female).

The one interpretation that I have heard is that this means that we should be more careful, when writing reference letters, not to unconsciously use terms that have a gender bias. Of course, if we are unconsciously describing two equivalent people differently just because one is a women and one is a man, then I would agree. My personal view is slightly different. There is no reason why someone who is more communal (kind, sympathetic, tactful, agreeable) wouldn’t be an excellent academic. If these terms fairly describe someone, then it’s not clear that reference letter writers should describe them differently. It’s the job of those on hiring panels to not undervalue such characteristics.

It’s certainly my opinion that the reason that agentic characteristics (ambitious, aggressive, daring) are more valued than communal characteristics is not because they are better characteristics for an academic, it is simply because these have been – and still are – the characteristics of the typical academic (in the sciences at least). I would much rather see us recognise that the ideal academic department is made up of people with a wide range of different characteristics (communal and agentic) rather than suggesting that those who want to become academics should become more agentic.


One thought on “Unconscious bias

  1. I meant to add a link to a study, called Project Implicit. The idea is that you do a short test that determines if you have a conscious or unconscious preference for something. It includes a wide range of different topics such as gender, race, sexuality, age, disability. I only did the Demonstration test for gender, but the results were interesting. I encourage anyone who reads this to give it a go. You might learn something about yourself, or you may confirm your own view of yourself.

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