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.