Geology & Geophysics AGU News

Getting to Fair: Recognizing Implicit Bias and Easing Its Impact

Six tactics given below can counteract unconscious biases that unbeknownst to us, influence decisions such as whom we nominate and choose for honors and recognition.

By Mary Anne Holmes, , and Donald Schwert

Think of a nurse, and whom do you picture? Likely, a woman. Think of a scientist, and whom do you picture? Likely, a man. This may not seem like a very big deal, but under many circumstances—for instance, when evaluating someone’s job performance or an application for honors or graduate school—social mores of which we are unaware may surface to direct our conscious thought. A number of studies have shown that conscious, willful thinking is only the tip of the iceberg as our brains process information leading to a decision. Around 2% of brain activity is conscious; the rest is below the level of consciousness, or implicit, often leading to unintended consequences.

Within a given cultural group, members share the same implicit thoughts and assumptions that are absorbed through life experience. If there is a bias in favor of women in the United States, nearly all of us in the country share it, without realizing it. If the bias is negative, we share that, too.

These implicit assumptions slant whom we nominate, whom we listen to, how qualified we think someone is for a job, and whether their qualifications seem to fit our ideas about the “ideal worker.” Psychologist Virginia Valian of Hunter College calls this slight bias at each career step “the mountain made of molehills” that impedes women’s careers. For the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) publications, it leads to fewer women being suggested to review journal articles, a necessary activity for career advancement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

From Survival to Evaluation

It’s important to emphasize that we are not making biased decisions on purpose. Nor do we make them to be mean or discriminatory or to maintain a particular status quo. Implicit thinking that makes use of preprogrammed schemas and assumptions is necessary to get through the day. We can’t stop and think when a lion is racing toward us, “Is this one of the nice lions?” Folks who did that are gone from the gene pool! We don’t face rampaging lions much anymore, and yet the survival instincts we acquired in those bygone eras are still part of our nature. It therefore takes some effort to combat implicit bias—in other words, to be fair.

Dozens of studies have revealed the impacts of implicit bias on evaluation outcomes. As members of AGU’s Honors and Recognition Committee, we see the impacts in the form of fewer women being nominated for or winning scientific awards and fewer selected as Fellows. On the other hand, we see disproportionately more women receiving service and teaching awards. Among other impacts, we see disproportionately few people of color and women working in our scientific fields, and  fewer people from outside the United States nominated for or winning awards.

Avoiding the Automatic

If this is how our brains work, what can we do to bypass this automatic mechanism? Research into solutions is ongoing and focuses for now on promoting awareness that this is how our brains work, that this seemingly small bias has a negative impact on our colleagues in certain underrepresented groups, and that taking more time (not feeling time pressure) helps to reduce this barrier.

A workshop hosted by our committee at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting aimed to raise awareness about implicit bias in evaluation. We had hoped to reach at least 40 AGU members with our “Getting to Fair” event. To our delight, some 250 conference attendees registered for the workshop.

Tactics Against Implicit Bias

It was heartening to see such widespread interest in this important topic at the workshop. Below, we provide some additional information, starting with the following six tactics to reduce the impact of implicit bias in the geosciences:

  • Build awareness of the scientific contributions made by women colleagues. Have they been nominated for awards for which they are qualified? Visit the AGU Honors website and see the lists of awardees posted there; then think hard of women colleagues whose names are missing.
  • Notice whether women in meetings are interrupted or their ideas are heard respectfully. Research demonstrates that when women in a mixed group speak for more than about 25% of the time, both men and women perceive that “women did all the talking.”
  • Look for telltale signs of bias in nomination and support letters. There are many studies that show letters of nomination and recommendation written for men to be longer, have more superlatives, and directly address the curriculum vitae. Letters written for women, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, have more personal references (e.g., to marital status, motherhood, “nice” qualities), and have considerably less written about scholastic achievements and qualifications.

    We write letters for men with more “agentic” terms (i.e., agents of effectiveness) and letters for women with more “communal” terms (gets along with people). It’s nice to be described as agreeable and pleasant, but agentic attributes get us the job, get us noticed, get us nominated for awards.

    Most recently, Kuheli Dutt of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and her colleagues examined 1224 letters of recommendation for postdoctoral positions in the geosciences and found that women were only half as likely as men to have an excellent letter written for their applications. If letters for a nominee are clearly biased in this manner, the AGU Honors Committee can ask that they be rewritten. A set of guidelines for writing good letters of nomination and of support and recommendation is provided on the AGU Honors and Recognition website.

  • Ensure that each section and focus group nomination committee has a canvassing committee charged with finding worthy nominees and colleagues to nominate them.
  • Provide each selection committee (and any committee evaluating applicants for performance) with a clearly written set of criteria for the award/selection before the nominations are submitted for review. We have all witnessed the phenomenon whereby one year we select a colleague on the basis of number of publications, and then the following year this evaluation criterion is less important, and the letters of reference are elevated in importance. The committee’s criteria should be consistent, clearly articulated, and arrived at by consensus.
  • Step up, women colleagues, and nominate other women! Women are less likely to submit nominations (for men or women). Women need to be in the game before everyone plays fair.

In the long run, addressing inequity will require changing the culture of the system that trains new scientists. Some 65 academic institutions in the United States have received ADVANCE grants from the National Science Foundation. These are designed to increase the number of STEM women on the faculty by addressing ingrained, often unchallenged, gender-biased procedures, policies, and processes that determine who is on our faculty.

In the United States, many academic institutions require that some “nonmajority” person serve on each search committee for new faculty as well as for other selection committees. This process has backfired by overburdening women and faculty of color with extra service work. North Dakota State University, following the lead of the University of California, Irvine, and many other ADVANCE institutions, has created a “male advocates and allies” program, wherein men learn about implicit bias and how to combat it and serve as the “minority voice” on committees. AGU Honors committees could benefit by having at least one bias awareness–trained male advocate on each committee to help members learn about implicit bias and its impact and develop strategies to minimize that impact.

—Mary Anne Holmes (email: [email protected]), University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Sam Mukasa, Chair, Honors and Recognition Committee, AGU; Donald Schwert, North Dakota State University

Citation: Holmes, M. A., S. Mukasa, and D. Schwert (2017), Getting to fair: Recognizing implicit bias and easing its impact, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO069497. Published on 08 March 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Shawn C. Kefauver

    Being aware is a great way to get started, now let’s be sure we keep moving forward!