Friday, October 5, 2012

Avoid the tiger

Are you biased? I am. I try not to be, but that is impossible, as social scientists have shown us for decades. Check yourself at Harvard Project Implicit.
Biases can be helpful. They can steer us away from danger – if one sees eyes reflecting a flashlight beam in the jungle at night, natural selection favors those who presume the worst. But biases can also cause harm, for example, by keeping good scientists from advancing in a culture that is biased against outsiders.
Last week, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says it all in the title: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students by Moss-Racusin et al from Yale. They used a classic double blind job application test – randomly assigning a male or female name to otherwise identical applications – to show that both male and female faculty members are biased against female applicants for a laboratory manager position. This study confirms the long-standing results of Steinpreis et al (1999) cited by CSWA Chair Joan Schmeltz in her talk at the summer 2010 AAS Meeting.
I that expect nearly all readers of this blog entry will say “I know this and it makes me angry.” In the hopes there are some who feel differently, I invite you to conduct your own experiment. Look for gender bias (or other forms) and see how many examples you can identify in a month. Here is my list:
1. An all-male colloquium committee is embarrassed to find that there are no female speakers this semester.
2. An undergraduate confides to a postdoc that her advisor assumes that because she is struggling in a class, she doesn’t want to become a physicist.
3. I overlook a female colleague when listing the mentors who have guided my journey.
Are you chagrined yet? I am. By the way, women and men science faculty are equally biased against women job applicants, as are biologists and physicists, and young and old faculty.
Awareness is the first step towards salvation. We can’t always see the tigers in the dark, but we can look out for them.