#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that’s what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it’s just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I’m running fewer funding competitions now that I’m at a smaller institution, I’ve got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).

A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications–to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year–easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia–for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications–I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That’s pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It’s been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.

If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you’d hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I’m reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they’d be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it’s not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias–by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B’s collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too–superb versus good, outstanding versus competent–and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.

Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding–or admission to a top-notch graduate program–they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)–not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They’ve gone so far as to add a big section to their “Letters of Reference” instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.

I’ve adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they’ll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they’re writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they’re exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems–to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have–is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can–I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they’re assessing applications. It’s something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.

But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn’t because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?

One thought on “The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

  1. One thing that is part of our hiring practices, as of a couple of years ago, is giving every member of any committee involved in evaluating files a summary of the research on exactly this topic, along with some references so skeptics can follow up.

    Somewhat famously, merely “trying to do better” on an individual basis when it comes to controlling bias doesn't actually work very well, and in some studies seems to make things worse. But if everyone on the committee has read the document, it stops arguments inside the committee along the lines of “but this candidate is described as incandescently brilliant while she is described as merely dedicated and very good,” because people can point to the research that says that such differences, when they run along gendered lines, are no evidence at all. So the committee members can do something, at least, to control the bias of one another and of the letter writers.

    Like

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