Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Unconscious Bias: A Personal Story

I have given a seminar on Unconscious Bias a few times recently. Some of you have heard it! During the introduction, I try to convey the idea to the audience that we all have biases, and we are (for the most part) unaware of them. Unconscious bias can have a detrimental effect on job/fellowship applications, proposal/performance reviews, award nominations, and promotions – in short, it comes into play any time we are evaluated. In general, men and women BOTH unconsciously devalue the contributions of women, so it is important to understand that unconscious bias is not discrimination and it is not prejudice. In order to emphasize that this is not a talk about male chauvinist pigs versus feminazis, I tell the story about the discovery of my own unconscious bias.

Years ago, before I joined CSWA, before I had ever heard of unconscious bias, I was reviewing a set of NASA proposals. This was long enough ago that the proposals were printed on paper and delivered by FedEx (yes, practically the Dark Ages!). My habit was to go through one proposal per day, writing notes in the margins and giving each a preliminary score. Days and days went by, and when I finally finished, I happened to stack the proposals up on my desk in order of my preliminary score. As I leafed through them, I noticed something that I had not expected – the two proposals with women PIs were at the bottom of the pile with the lowest scores.

I forced myself to go through the proposals again, reading all my comments and thinking about how these proposals stacked up against the others. I found that I could not justify my original low ratings and changed my scores. I did the same thing for the other proposals, but those scores didn't change. At the end of the process, these two proposals with women PIs were in the mix. What had just happened?

Now, years later, I know that this was my own unconscious bias at work. At the end of this story, I make this point in the seminar, “I am the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. If I can do this, you can do it too. In fact, we all do it and we do it all the time.”

Want to see your unconscious biases at work? Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test, and be prepared to be scared!