It's time to wake up. It's time to realize that it's not enough for colleges and universities to change, we have to change ourselves.
At this point, you're probably thinking "Change myself? What has Kent been smoking. I'm very supportive of women scientists, and I'd be delighted if there were more of them. Surely, he can't mean me." Well, I can't be sure that you need to change, but the PNAS study presents compelling evidence that we need to change, and we means all of us, so there's a pretty good chance that you need to change, too.1 Why do I say that?
Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues surveyed faculty in biology, chemistry, and physics departments at three public and three large private universities in the United States. They sent materials to each of the participating faculty member, telling them that the materials were from a science student who had recently applied for a laboratory technician position and who hoped to continue on in graduate school. They were asked to provide feedback on the application rating the students competence, suggesting a salary that they would have offered the student for a technician position in their lab, and indicating their willingness to serve as a mentor. Importantly, all of the participating faculty believed they were giving feedback on a genuine student application. In fact, all of the applications were identical.2 They differed only in that 63 sets of the material had the name "John" attached to them and 64 had the name "Jennifer" attached to them.
I'm not a social scientist, but the survey and analysis methods they used seem pretty sophisticated. Here's a brief summary of what they found:
- Even though the applications were identical, "John" was rated as more competent than "Jennifer", was more likely to receive mentoring, and would have been offered a higher starting salary.
- It didn't make any difference whether the faculty member evaluating the materials was a man or a woman. Both men and women evaluated the resumes in ways that favord "John" over "Jennifer".
- Participating faculty also completed a questionnaire designed to detect unconscious bias against women. The greater the unconscious bias the less likely faculty were to judge "Jennifer" as competent and the less likely they were to offer her mentoring.
Unconscious bias is an extremely difficult barrier to tear down. Since it's unconscious we're unaware of it. Ironically, it could be that a large part of the problem is those who are most proud of how open and welcoming they are. Their very openness makes them unlikely to question their judgments and unwilling to admit the possibility that their judgments are influenced by bias. Only by being aware that our judgments are influence by unconscious bias do we have a chance of making it conscious. And only by making it conscious do we have a chance of fighting it.
That's why all of us need to change. All of us need to admit to ourselves that we're biased, and all of us need to become aware of our biases (conscious and unconscious).
For more information, refer to Proven strategies for addressing unconscious bias in the workplace from DiversityBestPractices.com.3 See also Sean Carrol's post at Cosmic Variance.
Corinne A. Moss-Racusina,, John F. Dovidio,, Victoria L. Brescoll,, Mark J. Grahama, and Jo Handelsmana (2012). Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109
1I know that I need to change.
2I didn't see an explicit mention in the publication that the investigators received approval from the relevant Institutional Review Board that they received approval for this protocol, but it's a pretty safe bet that they did. It may be mentioned in the online supplements, which I haven't looked at.
3A PDF of the full report is available at www.cookross.com/docs/UnconsciousBias.pdf
Corinne A. Moss-Racusina,, John F. Dovidio,, Victoria L. Brescoll,, Mark J. Grahama, and, & Jo Handelsmana (2012). Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109