Sun, Mar 23, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The unconscious bias that keeps us from treating women equally

Unconscious, simplistic gendered thinking will hold women back at work until we recognize the bias and are trained to abandon our instinct for prejudice

By Athene Donald  /  The Observer, CAMBRIDGE, England

Stories abound of women lagging behind men: in pay, status, promotion and air-time on serious TV programs, to name but a few areas. Yet statistics show that girls are outperforming boys at school; for instance, twin 18-year-old girls Ameeta and Aneeta Kumar have recently won the UK Young Scientist of the Year award. Increasingly, that story of outperformance is also the case at Britain’s universities today, and in just about every subject.

How can both be true? The answer is down to us — our own behavior.

Each and every one of us is likely to believe that we can judge people fairly on their merits, regardless of gender, and yet the reality, as evidenced by study after study, is that we are really rather bad at it.

We carry all kinds of baggage around in our heads that can defeat even the best-intentioned individual, whether they are male or female.

In line with this, a recent study of about 1,000 alumnae of Murray Edwards College (an all-female college in the University of Cambridge) concluded that a lack of workplace fairness and support outweighed all other factors — more even than the delicate juggling act of work and family life — when it came to the effect on their progression at work.

Many of the women felt convinced that merit was not the overriding factor about getting on at work.

Another study, released last week, looked at how men and women fared in simulations of employment, for a role involving maths.

Given absolutely no information about someone’s maths skills, you might think men and women would be equally likely to be hired. Not so: Men were twice as likely to be taken on as women. Based on an absence of facts, the presumption was that men were more numerate.

This discrepancy was reduced but did not disappear with the appearance of actual evidence.

The title of this particular study says it all: “How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.” Simplistic stereotyping has effects across the board, but is particularly noticeable in the sciences. This being so, it does not matter if girls outperform boys in exams: Their subsequent job opportunities and career progression are still likely to be affected.

Of course, that is just one study, but there are plenty more like it. What is the likelihood, for instance, of an applicant being hired as a lab manager, based on their CV alone?

When tested, using identical CVs, and just switching between male and female names, the “male” candidate was significantly more likely to be hired, paid more and offered more support thereafter by men and women alike, a type of behavior that is called unconscious bias.

Last month’s British House of Commons science and technology select committee report on women in scientific careers took evidence from many sources and explored the barriers for women progressing — or not — in these professions.

The problem of unconscious bias was cited by many. The tendency of panels (too often still all male) to prefer people “like them,” however unconsciously, means that women in general have to outperform men just to be regarded as their equal.

And when applying for funding from all the UK Research Councils, overall, the data show that women are less successful in winning grants.

Perhaps all the female staff are genuinely less original and innovative than their male colleagues, but I doubt it.

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