Category Archives: Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias

Some tips on the recruitment and selection process

Moss-Racusin et al (2012) carried out an experiment in 2012 designed to tease out biases held by academic staff in science faculties. Findings clearly demonstrated that predispositions and preconceptions exist, and that they constitute the precursor to gender disparity in science subjects.

Participants in the study were asked to rate a student application form for the post of laboratory manager. The identical application forms were randomly assigned male or female, hence all variables were controlled … apart from gender: the only variable that could influence the panel members’ decisions regarding the competence of the applicant, was the perceived gender of the applicant.

Findings revealed that the same candidate, when understood to be female, was rated as being less competent than her (identical) male counterpart, and was offered a lower starting salary. Results also showed that the gender of the panel members did not influence their decision: the same bias was evident in both male and female responses.

Moss-Racusin et al’s study is one of many that confirms the reality and consequence of bias, whether conscious or not. It shows how our preconceptions can block and stifle the development and career progression of women in Science.

Accepting that we have biases, and that these can impact upon the lives and career progression of others, and the advancement of science research in general, is hard. But having preconceptions doesn’t make us ‘bad people’. If anything, it makes human: products of our socio-cultural environments. What is essential, however, is identifying, accepting and facing our biases: questioning and interrogating our thoughts and actions, and challenging those of others. So let’s move forward and make positive change for everyone.

Our immediate goal should not be to eradicate our preconceptions and aim to become ‘unconscious bias – free’. It is not that easy. But neither is being complacent an option. The first step towards enabling change, at a personal but also a social level, is to engage in discussions on how to reduce the impact of our bias during decision-making processes. There are many good ideas out there that can help us ensure that our policies and processes mitigate the impact of bias, always remembering that the problem is the system, not the person.

Here are some tips I have picked up from my years of working in gender equality that relate specifically to bias that can affect various stages of the recruitment process, from writing job descriptions and person specifications, through to the interview process. You may find all, or some of these useful.

Starting with the first stage of recruitment: writing job descriptions and person specifications. Try and write job descriptions and person specifications that are inclusive, in order to attract all types of applicants thus widening the applicant pool of talent. Include reference to departmental equality and diversity awards and showcase relevant logos (for example Athena SWAN). Include positive action statements if appropriate i.e. statements specifying that the institution welcomes all applicants, but particularly those from certain backgrounds that are under-represented within the organisation. Positive action, if justified, is legal. Positive discrimination is illegal.

Including a paragraph outlining the institution’s commitment to equality and diversity is also good practice. Making reference to opportunities for interdisciplinary research may also widen the pool of applicants, as would focusing on the benefits that accompany the role – for example, flexible working, coffee mornings, and available development and training opportunities. It seems obvious, but being ‘welcoming’ is also important, something which can be achieved very simply by choosing certain words or phrases (‘will’ and ‘will have’) over others (‘will be expected to’ and ‘should have’). Being tempted to overstate requirements to can lead to good applicants deciding not to apply, as some individuals may be inclined to understate their abilities. It may also be fruitful to avoid stating that the applicant will work long hours as this can put a range of applicants off (for example those with childcare and other caring responsibilities). Think about establishing a search committee to target potential applicants from groups underrepresented in your department. The committee could invite specific suitable candidates to apply: candidates who might not have thought of doing so. Think about where to place your advert. For example, a suitable place might be on WISE, which may help your institution convey the message that it holds “[…] a positive attitude to recruiting a diverse workforce.” (WISE recruitment webpages).

If possible, try to anonymise applicants for the shortlisting process. It is good practice to have, where feasible, a diverse interview panel, with participants having completed recruitment and selection training so that any unconscious biases lurking in the background are nudged towards the surface. The Royal Society have developed a briefing on unconscious bias which alerts panel members to the potential for bias to arise when making a decision. All members receive an electronic copy of the briefing prior to the interview, and it is also read before the start of each recruitment event.

A recent study published in the Journal of Social Sciences (2017) suggested that ‘Women are given a tougher time in interviews than men’. In particular, women are more likely to be interrupted and asked a higher number of follow-up questions than men: “The findings show that there is a pervasive ‘prove it again’ attitude displayed towards women, which may explain why many academic fields continue to be male-dominated.” One of the consequences of this, are that some candidates may have less time to complete their presentations. Our body language is another consideration, as we can emit subtle non-verbal cues that portray our attitudes, positive or negative, towards particular applicants during the interview process.

The Unconscious Bias in Colleges and Higher Education Handbook for trainers issued by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2013, suggests that it is important to ensure that “all shortlisting exercises and interviews are properly documented in a standard and consistent manner to show why people were shortlisted and recruited, and how they were more suitable for the post compared with other applicants.” It is also good practice to use a points-based scoring system to encourage objectivity, making sure that the criteria for the post are not unconsciously manipulated during the interview to fit a preferred applicant.

If we ensure that policies and processes are designed to mitigate the impact of bias wherever possible, we have a greater chance of reaching the ultimate goal: the establishment of a level-playing field. An environment where everyone has the same chance of succeeding. Indeed, may the best person win!

Dr Katerina Finnis, Equality and Diversity co-ordinator, Royal Holloway, University of London.

WISDOM visits the Henley Women in Leadership Forum Event: Be Brave – Confidence and Identity

Henley Business School (part of Reading University) run a women in business leadership network with events designed to encourage women to flourish as leaders in their fields. On Tuesday 8 November they ran a Forum event and guest speakers included: Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh – Associate Professor in Coaching, Henley Business School and panel speakers Sue Asprey Price – Executive Director Source8, Rita Goyal – Doctoral Researcher, Henley Business School, Tracy Lewis – Non-Executive Director, Staffline Group plc and Catherine Mason – Chartered Director and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors.

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh delivered an insightful talk on the problems of ‘Unconcious Bias’ and ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Unconcious Bias is becoming increasingly discussed in relation to the workplace. Research has proven that we all have an internal unconscious bias. We are not aware of this bias – and it is predominantly a bias towards, young, white, slim, males. Astonishingly – this is generic and means that even as a female you would have a bias towards young, white, slim, males. Women were more naturally associated with Liberal Arts and men towards the Sciences. We were asked to consider what the impact of these unconscious biases would have in our workplaces. I considered the landscape of our predominantly white, slim, male population within the School (staff and students). And that we are a Science department. If men are favoured (unconsciously) could this affect future applicants and employees to the School? After considering the implications of this and what this meant for WISDOM – I didn’t really want to hear Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh state that “there is nothing you can do about it either because it is unconscious”. Well I do have confidence that Royal Holloway and the School of Maths & ISG are ‘conscious’ of this ‘unconsciousness’ and I am pleased to see that unconscious bias training led by Organisation Development is being talked about more in the School and staff seem to be open to attending.

Dr. Christian then went on to discuss Imposter syndrome – notably it should not be called a syndrome because 70% of people have or do suffer from it. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you have invaded a role you should not have, a feeling of being a fake, or that somehow you have landed up where you are by luck. Basically, you have taken no credit for your success. Common thoughts of Imposter Syndrome sufferers would be: ‘You’re only a PhD student because you were lucky to get your Masters’… ‘You don’t really know what you’re doing’ …and such thoughts are linked to low self-esteem or confidence which is very common amongst men and women. Dr Christian described these negative thoughts as ‘performance-inhibiting’ thoughts and challenged us all to identify at least one performance inhibiting thought we speak over ourselves and to stop saying it. What could you change to be more kind to yourself? Would you speak to your best friend the way you speak to yourself? I found this really positive and I am going to take on the challenge.

So what do we do with all this if the problem is partly unconscious and partly within ourselves and a lack of confidence? The panel discussion focused on practical ways to implement solutions to these problems. Women need to shout louder. Many women due to a lack of confidence are ‘waiting for the call’. They believe that if they just work hard, put in the overtime, do a good job but keep their head down, they will eventually receive a call to promotion. But sadly, this is not the case. How would your employer know you were interested in something if you had not told them? No one can read our minds. We need to become more vocal and learn to express ourselves, if you think you would be good for that promotion and know why – then speak up! The problem is within ourselves and it can be fixed. Stop speaking negativity over yourself and your life and get out there and show and tell people what you are made of. Believe in yourself, you have not got to where you are today by sheer luck. I trust you have actually used your brain.

Finally, the piece of advice that really resonated with me the most was the fact that all the women on the panel had recommended support. Be it support from family, friends, a spouse, colleagues or professional coaches, sponsors and mentors – it seemed that underneath all the success there was a layer of people supporting, mentoring and encouraging each woman to be the best that she could be at whatever it was she had chosen to do. Every person needs support and this is one of the most important and vital functions of WISDOM. Not only does WISDOM seek to encourage more females into the field of Cyber Security and Maths, but in doing so it seeks to create an encouraging and hopefully sometimes challenging environment where members can feel wholly supported in their academic and professional endeavours. If this spills over into true friendship and support through the personal challenges of life as well as the professional ones, then even better.

If you are reading this and you are male then I thank you and congratulate you for your support. It was refreshing to hear a talk from a man at a women’s leadership event and there were also several males in the audience. Just before the event finished and we retreated to the reception for an obligatory glass of wine, there was a call for more men to get involved in events and networks like this. Why? You may ask. Because we need you and your support. We value your input. I would hope that from reading this you would understand where women are coming from just a tiny bit more than before and consequently, new understanding will lead to stronger partnerships, in academia, business and life.



You can read more about Unconcious Bias here: and more information on Imposter Syndrome can be found here:

Lisa Cavey (School Manager)

School of Maths & ISG