Addressing unconscious bias in science

And what CEED is doing about it


KEY MESSAGES
  • Unconscious gender bias is alive and well in the discipline of science
  • Becoming aware of it is an important step in overcoming its effects
  • Ridding ourselves of our unconscious biases is a difficult, long-term task that takes continuous evaluation

The Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) is currently composed of over 75 associates and 116 members, of which about 55% are women. Although as scientists we are trained to be impartial, we are no exception to some pervasive prejudices. Only by becoming aware of our prejudices can we work to overcome their effects. But what if our biases are unconscious?

‘Unconscious bias’ is a well-known phenomenon that impacts our behaviour and decisions. It refers to the sub-conscious assumptions and mental filters that affect our decisions and actions without us even being aware of them (see Morley 2011 for an excellent overall discussion on unconscious bias). Gender bias is one of the key biases – together with ethnicity, cultural background, and religion. Our ‘gender schema’, or gender expectation, is set from very early on in our life. Men tend to be associated with ‘agentic’ traits (eg, task-oriented, focused and driven) while women tend to be associated with ‘communal’ traits (eg, empathetic, gentle and kind).

We are all subject to societal biases and prejudices. Thus, only by becoming aware of these issues can we work to overcome their effects. Unconscious gender bias can disadvantage women in numerous ways: it can influence hiring decisions, our expectations of how different people should behave, and even how we treat colleagues in meetings.

Unconscious bias was a major theme at the 2015 CEED Biennual Conference. Pictured is a group forum on the topic.

Unconscious bias was a major theme at the 2015 CEED Biennual Conference. Pictured is a group forum on the topic.

In science, both men and women have been shown to display unconscious bias against women. For example, a recent study of biology, chemistry and physics professors found that both genders ranked identical job applications lower if they were given a woman’s name rather than a man’s (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012). This implies that for job opportunities in academia, assuming two candidates have the exact same skills and competencies, a woman is less likely to be hired. Unconscious bias can have far-reaching consequences for both genders throughout their careers; it can also negatively impact employers because single gender (ie, gender-biased) teams are less productive and have lower collective emotional intelligence than gender-balanced teams (Woolley et al 2010).

At CEED, we ran a number of sessions on unconscious bias in science where we discussed what could be done to address it. Seminars, workshops and group discussions took place at various CEED nodes across Australia. Figure 1A includes the timing and type of events at each node. These were tailored to the needs of each node and their goals and format varied.

At the Australian National University (ANU), the sessions were led by a private consultant (Deborah May) and organised by participants of the CEED leadership program. At The University of Queensland (UQ) the focus was on awareness raising and self-reflection and was organised by UQ early career researchers. At the University of Melbourne (UMelb), activities have included structured reading groups, seminars and data collection, and informal and social meet-ups.

To measure the impact of these sessions we conducted a survey of CEED workers (here’s the questionnaire). The specific goal was to understand whether we felt more informed about unconscious bias after attending a session. A total of 113 members participated in the survey, with the breakdown by node provenance shown in Figure 1B. When asked about how informed respondents felt about unconscious bias, we received a wide range of responses from very uninformed to very informed (Figure 1C).

Of the total pool, 49% participated in at least one of the events about unconscious bias. Of these (that is the 49% who attended some form of activity relating to unconscious bias), we found an overall improvement in the degree of self-assessment on awareness about the issues of unconscious bias at CEED (Figure 1D). Overall, women came out of these sessions feeling as informed about unconscious bias as did men, and every single one of them reported improvement in the awareness of this topic.

Figure 1. The landscape of unconscious-bias awareness at CEED. A. Time line of events (workshops, seminars, discussion) of working groups per CEED node (1. Facilitated consultation with staff and students over gender equity concerns and prospects. 2. Monthly social lunch meetings among female members. 3. Gender equity reading group. 4. Consultation with human resources regarding new staff equity and diversity framework. 5. Consultation with Walter & Eliza Hall Institute staff on equity policies. 6. Seminar on gender stereotyping and neurosexim. 7. Discussion on implicit bias, backcasting and brainstorming over retreat. 8. Discussion with Prof Cathering Pickering on gender equity and opportunity. 9. ‘Careers in science’ research seminar for first year undergraduates on gender equity and unconscious bias. 10. Bias incognito on gender equity in science talk. 11. Seminar for the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science on gender equity. 12. Equity plenary at ESA by Prof Emma Johnston and Prof Mark Burgman. 13. Same talk at the CEED conference based at ANU, with all participating nodes.) B. Participation of CEED nodes in the survey on unconscious bias, numbers of responses were generally proportional to the number of people in each node. C. Self-assessment of awareness about unconscious bias among the 113 participating CEED members. D. effect of attending an unconscious bias session on self-assessment of unconscious bias (only includes respondents that attended a session).

Figure 1. The landscape of unconscious-bias awareness at CEED.
A. Time line of events (workshops, seminars, discussion) of working groups per CEED node (1. Facilitated consultation with staff and students over gender equity concerns and prospects. 2. Monthly social lunch meetings among female members. 3. Gender equity reading group. 4. Consultation with
human resources regarding new staff equity and diversity framework. 5. Consultation with Walter & Eliza Hall Institute staff on equity policies. 6. Seminar on gender stereotyping and neurosexim. 7. Discussion on implicit bias, backcasting and brainstorming over retreat. 8. Discussion with Prof Cathering Pickering on gender equity and opportunity. 9. ‘Careers in science’ research seminar for first year undergraduates on gender equity and unconscious bias. 10. Bias incognito on gender equity in science talk. 11. Seminar for the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science on gender equity. 12. Equity plenary at ESA by Prof Emma Johnston and Prof Mark Burgman. 13. Same talk at the CEED conference based at ANU, with all participating nodes.) B. Participation of CEED nodes in the survey on unconscious bias, numbers of responses were generally proportional to the number of people in each node. C. Self-assessment of awareness about unconscious bias among the 113 participating CEED members. D. effect of attending an unconscious bias session on self-assessment of unconscious bias (only includes respondents that attended a session).

Although ridding ourselves of our unconscious biases is a difficult, long-term task that takes continuous evaluation, there are many things we can all do now that will help limit the adverse effects of this phenomena. Those actions are listed in the article below (Taking on unconscious bias).

Unconscious gender bias is all around us and contributes to many unfair and undesirable outcomes. If you are aware of it then maybe it’s not so ‘unconscious’ to you. If that’s the case, what will you be doing differently from now on to neutralise its unwanted influence?

Figure 2: Gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences at the higher academic levels (B to E). Source: Higher Education Research Data Collection 2012, Department of Education; Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia. Source: https://www.science.org.au/sage/gender-equity

Figure 2: Gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences at the higher academic levels (B to E). Source: Higher Education Research Data Collection 2012, Department of Education; Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia. Source: https://www.science.org.au/sage/gender-equity

*We would like to thank the wider CEED network, who have been actively engaged in discussing and acting on unconscious bias, and especially Megan Evans, Claire Foster, Stephanie Pulsford, Heini Kujala, Yung En Chee, Cindy Hauser, Jane Elith and Bonnie Wintle for their help with this article.

More info

ANU: Claire Foster claire.foster@anu.edu.au

UMelb: Cindy Hauser chauser@unimelb.edu.au

UQ: Alienor Chauvenet a.chauvenet@uq.edu.au

References

Morley K (2011). Getting to grips with unconscious bias. http://www.genderworx.com.au/getting-to-grips-with-unconscious-bias/

Moss-Racusin CA, JF Dovidio, VL Brescoll, MJ Graham & J Handelsman (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. PNAS 109:16474-16479.

Woolley AW, CF Chabris, A Pentland, N Hashmi, & TW Malone (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330: 686-688.


Taking on unconscious bias

Here is a list of actions you incorporate into your day-to-day life to reduce the impacts of unconscious gender biases:

1. Work the ratio: aim to have equal numbers of women and men present at workshops and working groups, as well as presenting plenaries or other seminars. In some disciplines, a higher ratio representative of the proportion of women in the field is appropriate.

2. Pass the opportunity along: if you are invited to participate in an event you can’t attend – recommend a woman to take your place (men are often the default).

3. Employ best practice strategies for gender-equitable recruitment, including:

a. Have well-defined selection criteria
b. Make the first round of the selection process blind: keep names off applications
c. Use structured interviews and evaluate every individual based on their actual merits relative to opportunity, rather than perceived correlates of merit.
d. Avoid group think – individual interviews before panel discussions prevent dominant personalities and bias influencing all panel members’ perception.

4. Encourage women to lean in – at all levels (and conversely, men to lean out when appropriate): this includes for promotions and awards.

5. Build the culture: create a workplace culture where people are encouraged to speak out against bias, and it is safe to do so.

6. Allow for flexibility: workplaces which allow for flexibility in working environments, e.g. working hours, travel commitments, options for maternity and paternity leave, will benefit both women and men.

7. Manage your questions: seminar chairs can manage question time to encourage equal numbers of questions, and engagement, by both men and women.

1 comment on “Addressing unconscious bias in science”

  1. Pingback: Overcoming Unconscious Bias – Megan. D. Barnes, Ph.D.

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