On Being Biased

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.

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7 Responses to On Being Biased

  1. Matin Durani says:

    Interesting post. I’ve written a feature for the March 2016 issue of Physics World magazine about unconscious bias as part of a special issue on how all of us can help to make physics a more welcoming and inclusive discipline. As I discovered while researching the topic – and doing the Project Implicit tests – our biases are by their nature so ingrained we often don’t notice their effects, so blog posts like this are great at helping people to be aware of them at least.
    Matin Durrani
    Editor, Physics World

  2. Matthew says:

    While this kind of training is of great value and desperately needed at the moment I believe that at the same time we should be looking at the route cause of the problem; why these subconscious thoughts get into our heads in the first place and also the negative effect it has on encouraging more people into the STEM fields.

    I am hereby pretty much criticising people who genuinely write and post things in support of Women in STEM and so am in fear of offending, but I have thought a lot about this lately and so would just like to put it out there as a theory and would be glad to hear anyones thoughts.

    There is far too much emphasis on a STEM professional’s gender in the media and on the internet if they are female. It seems that whenever a female achieves something they are labeled ‘Female’ Scientist does this, ‘Woman’ Engineer does that etc. Thus reinforcing the subconscious to believe that being a female in STEM must be something unusual. The worst case I can think of this is if a ‘Female’ Engineer gives a talk to school girls to encourage them into STEM, why not just an Engineer goes to talk to school children? (after all the country desperately needs more STEM pros no matter what gender) Given that most people don’t have any idea of what a Professional Engineer looks like (normally image of bloke covered in grease fixing a train) both genders would see a successful professional and have no thought that a female Engineer was anything except normal, thus not introducing any subconscious bias.

    It seems that headline grabbing with the appearance of supporting Women in STEM does more harm subconsciously than good, here is a recent example:


    Headline, ‘ONLY FEMALE MASTERING ENGINEER EVER NOMINATED FOR A GRAMMY!’ possible subconscious meaning?: Females are unusual in this area and even worse, victims of sexist music industry? As a young person would I want to work in an industry that discriminates against me?

    They could made it a bit more inspiring while keeping the gender headline: LEADING THE WAY! FIRST FEMALE ENGINEER NOMINATED FOR GRAMMY! Better but still reinforcing subconscious thought that this is an unusual industry for women.

    As this is a piece in a magazine with a majority of female readers why could they have run with something like ‘AWESOME ENGINEER NOMINATED FOR GRAMMY!

    The above is very typical, but there are also some really good pieces out there:



    All that is seen in this entire article is a very successful and powerful Engineer discussing Europe’s largest construction project and solutions to London’s transport problems. Any person reading this will only have positive thoughts about the profession. I think that we really need to see much more articles like this!

    Another area where I have very mixed feelings is the issue of gender specific awards. As I understand, at the moment, woman are genuinely disadvantaged in many ways and while these awards are great to highlight people’s achievements I am concerned by the subconscious message: Women are unable to compete with men and so need a special category. Without deep understanding of what the actual disadvantages are (#just1action4WIS gives some great examples!) it leads to a subconscious thought that Women are in some way inferior. A very difficult problem and something that needs to be added to the training course perhaps….

    Finally (for now) I think that people trying to encourage young people in STEM fields really need to put more of an effort into learning a little about marketing and sales! 8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiska’s, Cathedral City the nations favourite cheese, 94% recommend Pantene. Only 8% of Engineers are women…..

  3. terry says:

    This is my comment and response to a read-through of the ‘bias’-related survey in which I just tried to participate.
    I began to go through one of the questionnaire-sets, including the task of the day. I could not complete it, but that was because of a technical problem: i.e. the design of the later web-pages of the survey, involving reaction to images, seems to be restrictive in regard to the range of users’ computer-systems with which it will compatibly cooperate. The survey web-pages demanded button-presses or key-presses in some way that my computer system could not link up with, and my system got stuck, with no option for me but to back out.
    What I see, however, is that the format of this questionnaire-system is that of multiple-choice questions. There is no opportunity at all (at least so far as presented to me) for the respondent to state the respondent’s own opinions. On the other hand, the propositions (so far as presented to me for levels of agreement or diagreement in the pages that I was able to complete) in themselves embodied so many implicit assumptions — assumptions that I find mostly totally alien — that I can hardly believe they are seriously put forward as forming part of a survey of biases on the part of respondents rather than biases on the part of the survey-designers.
    It is not that I claim to be free of biases, but a questionnaire that is so lacking in opportunity for the respondent to state the respondent’s own opinions — wherever these differ from the extraordinary formulae presented for approval or disapproval — can certainly not be the basis of a plausible claim to be a test of the respondent’s biases.

    • Matthew says:

      Terry, the point of the system is to find ‘unconscious’ bias, if it asked what you ‘consciously’ think it would defeat the objective.

      • terry says:

        The point is, Matthew, that words and statements imposed from outside can’t be taken to come from the respondent, and whether the interest is in the respondent’s conscious or unconscious parts makes no difference.
        There is a contrast here with reputable psychometric questionnaires: these may use multiple-choice questions too, but the role of the answers is to provide comparison with answers previously given to the same questions by external reference respondent-groups or pilot groups who are of independently-assessed characteristic of whatever kind is of interest. Then, any reliability of characterisation of the fresh respondents rests on comparison, via the statistical links provided by the fresh answers, with the reference-groups, and with whatever degree of reliability there was in their independent characterisation. Both of these matters are in principle capable of scrutiny.
        Here there is no sign of reliance on any external independent characterisation of scrutinisable reference-groups of respondents (and also no apparent consideration of ethical guidelines for the use of such questionnaires).
        What is left is leading questions and concepts imposed on the respondents by the question-designers. Such things have been known for centuries as ingredients of oppressive inquisition and interrogation techniques, compare for example the questionings used to ‘find’ the ‘witches’ of Salem, and modern examples are available too.
        The methodology is intrinsically falsifying and unreliable.

        • Matthew says:

          Terry, sorry for the confusion, I thought that we would both see an IAT test that is based on word association and timed responses. Trying the link again it seems that the actual type of test changes daily.

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