The policeman at the centre of ‘Gategate’, who may or may not have been called a pleb by the Conservative Chief Whip, has been called in the press a ‘jobsworth’, a term certainly not complimentary even if not in the same league as the presumed ‘toff’s’ alleged insult of ‘pleb’ (Isn’t our class system wonderful!). I spend a lot of my time talking to and working with our university’s HR (Human Resources) Division, whom I am sure in the eyes of many in the community are seen as no better than ‘jobsworth’ people themselves. HR is too often seen as that annoying bunch of people who insist on you filling in endless forms and who waste your precious time apparently just for their own whim and pleasure. The reality is rather different, and I do get frustrated listening to the moans of colleagues who should know better.
Undoubtedly our UK governance structures, loosely interpreted, require academic institutions to fill in a depressingly large amount of paperwork. Take visas for visiting students and scholars, for instance. These were always a nightmare and have become increasingly so under current rules. However, I need say no more than London Met to make my point that correct form-filling is necessary for the protection of all. That is not to say I agree with government policy on this, of course I don’t (my University Council – to which I belong – has issued a statement about these issues); removing students from the migrant quota is the obvious logical thing to do and one with which BIS almost certainly would agree. The battle is with the Home Office and as long as they remain obdurate, doing anything other than complying with the insane paperwork is daft. That is not HR’s fault, so don’t blame the messenger.
What about all that paperwork associated with appointments? Surely that could be dispensed with? But that is exactly where there is some hope – if anyone reads the paperwork and monitors the statistics – of tracking whether equality law really is being properly followed. A recent, shocking, study published in PNAS looked at how identical CVs, submitted under either male or female names, led to very different outcomes, with the ‘male’ applicant being significantly more likely to be offered the job than the ‘woman’. The study demonstrated that there is an ongoing need to monitor what goes on when jobs are on offer. This US-based study revisited the problem of how much individuals – male and female alike – are unconsciously affected by the gender of applicants in ways that colour their decision-making because they implicitly believe women are less ‘competent’. The following is taken from the study’s abstract:
In a randomized double-blind study (n=127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student – who was randomly assigned either a male or female name for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.
The putative position in question was therefore at the most junior end of things, for which a graduate student was being recruited, but there is no reason to expect that things would have been any less skewed for higher-ranking positions. Indeed I would argue that things are liable to be only worse for hiring in the higher echelons. The authors concluded that
Rather, some women may persist in academic science despite the damaging effects of unintended gender bias on the part of faculty.
I suspect many of my readers may be nodding in agreement at this point. The challenge for an HR department is to work out what to do to overcome such gender bias. My PVC with responsibility in this area has already asked just that question having read the PNAS paper. Some years ago, courses were run in my university called ‘Responding to Merit’ in which some of the underlying issues about unconscious bias were raised and discussed. I attended one of these (they were of course voluntary), but I fear that most of the attendees were people like myself who were already fairly aware of the pitfalls that gender bias can produce. Monitoring statistics for every job: number of applicants by gender, number shortlisted/interviewed etc plus the final outcome is at least a step in the direction of providing hard evidence with which to work. It is insufficient and of course the conditions are far less controlled than the study itself, making the results so much harder to interpret.
However, if academics in universities just shake their head every time a directive turns up from the HR department demanding a set of forms be filled in for every vacancy, clearly little progress is going to be made. Nothing short of a culture change, a realisation at every level in the organisation that problems persist, is likely to improve the situation. This is not a question of conscious discrimination, which makes it all the harder to root out. The study authors conclude with the statement that
These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.
They do not specify what such interventions might look like. Lining up all the professors in a hall and talking at them is unlikely to be successful. Nor is an online training programme, I fear. But constant reminders – verbal reminders probably work best, from heads of department or equivalent – to be on guard could help. So could mentoring and training for newly recruited faculty, to make sure that before they ever get involved in hiring they’ve had any unconscious prejudices and preconceptions drawn to their attention. Note, these remarks are addressed to women just as much as men. Somehow, our societal expectations, ingrained from our earliest years, cause us to believe that young women are less ‘competent’ overall, when it comes to a scientific job, than the identical individual masquerading under a male moniker. This is prejudice, plain and simple.
So, next time HR sends a form in your direction, think not just about the probable tedium of having to fill it in, but about the underlying reason for its existence. It may be to satisfy some unsatisfactory government policy, it may be to try to identify where problems lurk in local decision-making, but the chances are there is some underlying rationale. Maybe in a perfect world these forms would be unnecessary (I’m sure readers will be keen to nominate instances where they really do believe there is no point in this or that HR directive), but I for one think HR serves a hugely important purpose and I’m delighted to be doing my bit, as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, to champion the work they do against those charges of ‘jobsworthiness’ to which they are so often subjected.
If you want to read a fuller discussion of the implications of the PNAS paper take a look at this post and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn over at Occam’s Corner. I am sure there are others out there and I have not attempted to discuss the findings per se here. Suffice it to say I find it shocking and none of us should ignore the implications. I have also begun to see analyses suggesting how the study protocols could have been improved, though only so far through informal routes so I can’t post links. Nevertheless, all analysts I have come across seem confident that the evidence supports the overall conclusion of the existence of unconscious bias in the study.