I worry sometimes that discussion of women's issues focus heavily on parenthood, which can be narrow, presumptive, and alienating for women who cannot or choose not to have children. I'd also love to hear comments from readers outside the U.S. on the pros and cons of their policies affecting women in science in their countries, since my perspective is very U.S.-centric.I'm certainly no expert, but I do have a few thoughts, some of them inspired by my recent post on sexism in science. Since so many others know so much more about issues of parenthood than I,1 I'm going to focus on other ideas. I'm also going to make suggestions that have to do primarily with what we can do as individuals rather than those that have to do with how our institutions are structured, not because these suggestions are necessarily the most important, but because they're the ones that are under our most immediate control.
- As the study I wrote about last week illustrates, all of us have unconscious biases that influence our evaluation of others, whether it's teachers evaluating students, graduate advisors evaluating current or potential advisees, PIs evaluating post-docs or potential post-docs, or faculty evaluating potential colleagues in hiring or current colleagues in promotion and tenure. Our first task: Admit to ourselves that we have unconscious biases. Only if we admit that can we begin to overcome them.
- Having admitted to ourselves that we have unconscious biases, we must then work to minimize their influence on our evaluations of others. Some years ago I spent some time reading about strategies of decision making. In the context of evaluating candidates for a job, one idea that's stuck with me is the idea of formulating for yourself explicit criteria before you've seen any of the candidates for a position. Of course, that alone won't do any good if the criteria you adopt are biased. Our second task: Identify explicit criteria and performance standards before any evaluation, and scrutinize them as closely as you can to make sure they don't introduce an unintentional bias into the evaluation.
- Just identifying those criteria will help a lot, but we can do even better. Once you have a list of criteria in front of you, it's natural to use a spreadsheet - maybe even one that you put in Excel &ndsah; to record how well each candidate performs on each of the criteria. And once you have all of the candidates scored for every criterion, it's easy to construct a composite index that expresses the overall performance of each candidate. The index could be something as simple as the sum or the average of each of the individual scores, or the criteria might be weighted with respect to how important they are. Our third task: Evaluate everyone on each criterion and base a final judgment on the same combination of all criteria for everyone.
Those ideas have to do with how we evaluate groups of people. What can we do for individuals? Ed Yong describes a fascinating study from a physics class in Colorado. Head over there for a description of the study, but it suggests to me a fourth task that we can engage in every day: Affirm the dignity and worth of everyone you interact with, and encourage everyone to take time to affirm the positive values they hold for themselves.
1My children are two American shorthairs. The challenges I face with them are quite different from those that folks with human children face.