The subject of unconscious bias training has risen swiftly up the agenda at many organisations with the recognition that we are, almost without exception, guilty of it. (If you think you’re exempt, try the Project Implicit tests.) Be it that we fail to assume women are as competent at science or leadership as men – the manifestation in which I am most likely to discuss it on this blog – or that we jump to conclusions about ethnic minorities’ abilities (or indeed any other minority, context dependent), we make dangerous default assumptions. That default position seems collectively to be that we are always prone to assume a white male is best. The Royal Society has produced an animation to remind us all of our failings and Research Councils UK are introducing training for their panel members, thereby ensuring a substantial number of mid-career and senior UK researchers are likely to be exposed to training in the very near future.
Perhaps inevitably there is a backlash. Why, I heard a committee chair ask in exasperation, did he need this? It’s just condescending seemed to be his view: he knew he wasn’t biased. If I had had access at the time to this excellent checklist from the AAS Women in Astronomy blog I obviously should have pointed him to it. Or indeed to my own list of #just1action4WIS to see how many he had actually carried out . Unfortunately being gobsmacked, my response was much too slow. Riposte à l’escalier applies far too often. So here are some vignettes of the kind of person – male or female – who does indeed ‘know’, quite wrongly, that they are not biased and the situations in which things can go wrong.
1 Patron of the Young
I know senior professors who are immensely supportive of the young female researchers in their group. They encourage them, make it clear that they understand that as a woman there may be particular challenges for them, talk them up and send them off to conferences with their blessing. Then one of these young women becomes successful and gains confidence and starts challenging her mentor. This suddenly changes the dynamics. The professor likes patronising young women; he (and in this case it probably but not invariably is a ‘he’) does not like a woman who answers him back. That isn’t what a woman is meant to do in his book. The support evaporates, the professor turns his back and starts to badmouth this ‘feisty’ (how I hate that word) woman who is no longer playing the part he ascribed to her. For goodness sake, she was meant to be grateful and hang on his every word, not tell him his words don’t make sense. It is very hard for women who suddenly discover that their mentor has become their enemy, although it may take them a while to recognize that this is what is happening.
2 Women can be very smart but….
This description applies to the person who is immensely supportive of women in the abstract. However, strange to say, every time they sit on a panel judging a woman – promotions, appointment or grant-giving committee doesn’t really make much odds – they find some reason, only in this particular case of course, to talk the woman down. How do we know she won’t take time out to have a child as soon as we appoint her? Given how spectacularly successful she has been in winning grants, the committee surely doesn’t want to overload her by awarding her another one. It wouldn’t be kind so we should turn her down despite the brilliance of her work and the originality of the grant application. (While I can’t say that a particular grant application of mine was described in those terms, I do know that that was an excuse I once had levelled against me and a grant application rejected on the grounds I was spread too thin. Have any men been so ‘protected’ for their own good?)
3 Potential and Independence, the Default Position of Male
I have sat through too many committees where the standards applied to women are different from those applied to men. This is something that is not applicable only in the academic world. Men are judged on potential, women on completion. A woman has to have accomplished far more to be judged in the same way. These words by a senior female manager at Unilever neatly sum up this position:
“For example, a male manager looking to promote a man may say: ‘Chuck him in at the deep end and let’s see if he sinks or swims.’ The same manager may say of a female candidate: ‘Is she ready yet? We don’t want to set her up to fail.’ Words said with the best of intentions, without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.”
This is another form of protection – don’t offer women opportunities in case they can’t cope or perhaps because it is simply assumed they won’t be able to. Specifically within the domain of research this often manifests itself as a question of independence. Men are assumed to be independent unless proven otherwise. Women – particularly if they are still working in the same institution in which they did their PhD – are assumed not to be independent unless evidence is provided to the nth degree to prove that yes they really are.
Do people know what assumptions they are making in these various instances? I suspect not. To concentrate on this last point about independence, it is very hard to spot since so often it is implicit. In this context the experiences of transgender researchers who see people’s responses from both sides at different times is illuminating (and horrifying). People don’t necessarily parse ‘this male researcher is independent; this female researcher is not’ when their CVs are identical. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking like that. To illustrate this point take this reference for a female researcher:
“a consistent output of more than a dozen papers per year, despite a period of maternity leave and currently working less than full time; more than £2M of current research funding held as PI….however she is still at a relatively early stage of her career and this makes me uncomfortable about recommending her….”
What would it have taken to convince this referee (nominated in this actual case by the candidate, poor misguided woman) that this was a brilliant woman who was powering ahead?
So, let us not pay heed to men and women who think they don’t need to be reminded of their implicit biases. We all have stereotypes in our heads that need to be identified and then trampled on. Only then can we start forming opinions about people as they really are, not as we imagine.