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

Nevertheless, one could probably come up with plausible explanations for the women’s comparative lack of success that the headline figures do not reveal.

Perhaps the women are less well mentored in writing their grant applications early on. Perhaps they have more teaching and pastoral tasks assigned to them and consequently have less time to expend on writing the applications.

Their style of writing could be less expansive, more risk-averse than their male counterparts. Or, if they are asked to describe their track record, their upbringing may make them disinclined to talk up their previous work.

Any of these are plausible explanations, tying in with the realities that were described in the select committee report, or that are consistent with societal expectations of women.

However, unconscious bias during evaluation should also be considered as potentially playing a substantial part in the discrepancy.

Grant income and other metrics should not be all it takes to progress and be successful. My university (Cambridge) has just published a book, The Meaning of Success, exploring what success can look like to the individual, demonstrating that for women it is about a lot more than such numbers, something I suspect that many men would go along with, too.

We need to rethink what the 21st-century success story looks like by taking into account that the default professor is not necessarily male (with a stay-at-home partner) and broadening ideas of what is “ideal” for men and women and what counts as success.

This will also help to ensure that merit is the true driver of progression.

The select committee report was very short on recommendations about how to reduce the loss of talented women from our scientific workforce.

Indeed, in a rather self-defeating way, it commented that perhaps the significant drop-out of women from scientific careers meant that less, rather than more, effort should be expended in attracting girls into science in the first place.

That is unlikely to be helpful if we want to have a healthy diversity of talented and innovative people working in science and doing their bit for the British economy.

Eliminating a significant fraction of the population from ever entering science cannot be a smart thing to do.

So let me offer a new recommendation to add to that made by the MPs.

I propose that every MBA course in the country should have an unconscious bias element included, and taking some relevant training should be an expectation of anyone involved in recruitment of any kind.

I would also like to see it included as a topic in the school curriculum, a place to start a dialogue among children so that they can identify their own propensities to gender-stereotyping.

In fact, let’s just stop making lazy gendered assumptions and start looking at the individual for what they are and what they offer. And if you think you are uniquely free from such simplistic gendered thinking, let me encourage you to try the tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit Web site. You may be shocked by the results.

Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and the university’s gender equality champion.

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