Gender Bias – Making the Unconscious Conscious

October 22, 2015

Scale with a blue male sign on left side and a pink female sign on the right side.Tackling overt discrimination can be difficult enough. Take for example, the recent case at UC Berkeley. After a six-month investigation, the university concluded that high profile faculty member and renowned astronomer, Geoffrey Marcy, had violated multiple sexual harassment policies over the course of a decade. At first, the university’s investigation and corresponding disciplinary actions went under the radar; however, when it became public that Marcy’s reprimand was essentially a small slap on the wrist, the community responded. A petition from students and faculty alike began and was supported by thousands of scientists. Marcy resigned from his faculty position last week.

There are egregious examples of hostile work environments like Marcy’s lab at Berkeley and appalling examples of sexist comments like Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls.” However, most discrimination is much more subtle. Unconscious gender bias can keep women in STEM from opportunities, equal pay and much more. Persistently feeling undervalued professionally can eventually push women out of the lab and out of STEM altogether.

Furthermore, empirical evidence supports gender bias findings. We have written in the past about gender bias in letters of recommendation. This bias persists with science faculty during hiring decisions and one study found that male applicants were viewed as more competent and deserving of a higher salary even when female applicant’s resumes were identical.

Unfortunately though, many men don’t believe this is actually happening. A new study found that unconscious bias is quite insidious and when shown evidence of gender bias against women in STEM fields, men were significantly less likely to find these studies important and/or convincing. The study’s authors note, “How can we successfully broaden the participation of women in STEM when the very research underscoring the need for this initiative is less valued by the majority of the group who dominate and maintain the culture of STEM?”

How can this be fixed then? As with most problems, often the first step is to admit there is actually a problem. On a systematic level, recognizing gender bias exists in STEM and working to develop programs and initiatives to combat it will be essential.

But, what can you do on an individual level? First, remember that every person has biases. Most people believe they are ethical and unbiased. However, even the most open-minded person harbors a lot of unconscious biases. Once you begin to realize your own biases, then you can make decisions to change your behavior accordingly. Organizations like Google have recognized this and started workforce training programs focusing on unconscious bias. Watch their video on making the unconscious conscious.

Harvard has a series of online tests which measures implicit prejudices on everything from gender and race to age. Millions have taken these tests to help increase awareness of unconscious bias. Check it out here at the Implicit Association Test. We can all work to overcome implicit bias; however, remember to seek support if you feel like you are being treated unfairly. If you are at the NIH, there are resources to help you like the NIH Ombudsman and the Employee Assistance Program.

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Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

September 22, 2014

The time has arrived – you are in search of a new position! Besides getting your CV/resume in shape, working on those cover letters, and looking at position postings, you are also sending out requests for letters of recommendation. Hold that thought though – especially if you are a woman!

Research has uncovered “unintended gender bias in letters of recommendation.” A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”. The language used was full of nuanced and hidden biases resulting in diminished support for female applicants. Even the descriptions of positive qualities portrayed men in their role as researchers and professionals, while women were portrayed as teachers. Adjectives used in female letters as a constructive description (e.g. ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘dependable’, ‘meticulous’, ‘thorough’, ‘diligent’, ‘dedicated’, and ‘careful’) often ended up having the reverse effect. In many ways it denoted a sentiment that she is hardworking because she has to compensate for lack of ability.

Letters of recommendation are critical to your career advancement. So, based on this report, it might not be a bad idea to give your advisor or mentor an overview of this research and follow up with a proposed checklist of your own. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Use titles and surnames for both women and men.
  2. Discuss applicants only in terms of the job requirements (provide a detailed list to your advisor in advance).
  3. Limit discussions of personality and interpersonal skills to avoid hidden gender bias!
  4. Avoid mentioning stereotypically female traits or professions if they are not relevant to the job.

Generally, advisors aren’t intentionally biased when writing letters and you can’t fully control what is written; what you can control is how well you prepare your letter writer. Provide your advisor with a list of the job requirements and a list of the skills and achievements you want him/her to include in the letter. Another tool you both can use is an online gender bias calculator. You can copy and paste your recommendation and see a listing of all the male or female-associated words that are listed in your letter. Talk to your advisor about these possible pitfalls in letters of recommendation (show them the data!) and prime him/her to be more conscientious while writing yours.