Category Archives: Voice and Influence

Voice and Influence Program

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.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have joined WISDOM.

Back when I was an undergraduate student of Mathematics I remember periodically receiving emails inviting me to a ‘Women in Maths’ event taking place within the department. Most of these events were targeted at early stage mathematicians (undergraduates, PhD students, and postdocs) who were women, and focused on their career. I never attended any of these events, actively selecting to ignore them instead. In this post I want to share some reasons why I avoided these events, and reflect on how I feel differently now.

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Voice and Influence Program, session 6: Power and Influence

This week’s Voice and Influence programme was on the topic of Power and Influence. We discussed various social signals that position someone in an authoritative “high” position, versus those for an approachable “low” position. There is a need to recognise when one position is more beneficial to you as an influential voice. As a rule-of-thumb, authoritative signals as a speaker and approachable signals as a listener.

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Voice and Influence Program, session 5: Negotiation

 In the fifth instalment of the Voice and Influence training we discussed negotiation. The session began with a video in which Professor Margaret Neale gave her best tips for negotiating successfully. The purpose of this video is to propose a new way of thinking about negotiation: most people view negotiation as an adversarial process, but Professor Neale wants to change the frame of thinking. Negotiation is problem solving, and problem solving is collaborative! A summary of the talk is given below.

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Voice & Influence program, session 2: Effective Networks

On Tuesday 31st January we had the second session of the Voice & Influence program. This time the topic was about building effective networks – very timely for me as I approach the end of my PhD and think about finding a job.

We learnt about the three different kinds of networks: operational (day-to-day relationships at work), personal (friends, family and informal relationships), and strategic, the most important for career advancement. We learnt three properties of good strategic networks: they are broad (it is helpful to have a diverse range of contacts, not just ‘people liV&I session 2 pictureke me’); connective (contain people with links to other groups), and dynamic.

We had some useful group discussion about networking experiences, how to network effectively, and how to appropriately maintain professional relationships. We also discussed a list of tips explaining how not to be a network leech. We decided some of these tips may be less appropriate in an academic setting (such as paying for someone’s help a second time you seek it), but found some very applicable, such as preparing a list of questions in advance.

I found it particularly useful to hear advice from the group on how they use LinkedIn to support their networking, which is something I will take forward and use myself. We also reflected on the importance of noticing one’s own value to the network, which helps to balance the perceived inauthenticity or coldness of trying to connect with someone you identify as valuable to you. As I look back on my PhD, I have found networking easier as I have progressed, and one reason for this is that I feel like I now have more to offer the community. However, perhaps I should have begun valuing myself sooner!

Our next session will be Tuesday 14th February, 4pm, in the Large Boardroom, Founders. All postgraduate students and staff in the School of Mathematics and Information Security are welcome to attend, and we hope to see many of you there.

Rachel Player



Voice & Influence program, session 1: Uncovering Authentic Leadership

Tuesday 17th January was the first session of our local edition of the Voice & Influence program. This program, created by the Centre for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership at Stanford University, was designed to empower women and men to realise their professional potential and help them create organisations where workers can excel and thrive.

The program’s 11 modules each have a video and a discussion guide. The first module was about uncovering authentic leadership. We learned that covering isV&I session 1 picture copy when someone has disclosed some identity, but mutes or tones down its significance. (Compare with passing, which is when someone hides possessing this identity.)

We had some thought-inspiring discussions about covering. Covering is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, it is natural that we bring different aspects of our identities to the forefront in different environments. Covering becomes problematic when we are expected to do it. So what’s the relation to voice and influence? Well, authenticity, not assimilation, is a path to leadership.

All postgraduate students and staff in the School of Mathematics and Information Security are welcome to these sessions, which will be held every two weeks.

The next session is on Tuesday 31st January, 4-5pm in Windsor 1-02. For more details, see our Voice & Influence poster.

Marie-Sarah Lacharite, PhD student.