Unconscious bias hinders achieving faculty diversity

Jo Handelsman

Scientists, as a group, believe they make hiring decisions on merit, free from cultural biases. After all, they are, by definition, objective observers. Right?

Think again.

"Just ask them. They'll tell you, 'Oh no, we hire based on the quality of the applicant and nothing else,'" said Jo Handelsman, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who as co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, has made it her business to research why so few women have cracked the glass ceilings of elite institutions.

Her conclusions?

"We owe Larry Summers a debt," said Handelsman, referring to the president of Harvard who resigned last week following several controversies including comments he made that "innate ability" may explain why few women reach top science posts.

"Summers outed this issue," Handelsman said in her Feb. 23 lecture at Fairchild Auditorium, which is part of a broad effort by the medical school to achieve greater diversity. "He brought it to a new level."

And that's the first step toward rectifying what an overwhelming body of scientific evidence has shown—that an unconscious cultural bias against women in the sciences, particularly at the higher levels of elite institutions such as Stanford, is driving many of the best scientists into other fields.

Medical schools face additional hurdles in battling these biases due to the added challenges of balancing not only educational and research responsibilities, but clinical duties as well, Handelsman noted.

"Schools of medicine are found to be the worst environment for women of any academic institutions," Handelsman said.

Following the presentation, Hannah Valantine, MD, senior associate dean for diversity and leadership, sought out Handelsman for tips on addressing these issues. Valantine agreed that medical schools face added challenges to achieving diversity. "The environment under which we work is that much more complex," Valantine said. "It challenges the life-work balance."

The fact that women aren't advancing into the top science posts is no secret. Even as the number of women earning PhDs in science has substantially increased since the women's movement of the 1970s—women now account for 25 to 50 percent of doctorates—the science and engineering faculties of elite research institutions remain overwhelmingly male.

Handelsman quotes from a litany of scientific studies to reach her mostly scientific audiences: Women need substantially more publication papers to achieve the same ratings as a man, according to a Swedish post- doctorate fellowship study; 19 different studies show that a candidate has a better chance of being hired when she submits an application with a male name; job performance reviews are rated lower if they're about a woman. And on and on.

"It's a cultural tendency that we all have," she said. "And women and men both have exactly the same unconscious bias. It can be quite depressing, but the good news is we all need to work together."

Institutional changes, such as making tenure tracks more flexible and building lactation rooms on campuses, are the first step toward attracting more women, Handelsman said. Institutions need to be transformed to accommodate the biological and social realities of women's lives.

But the first step toward change requires reaching an understanding of these unconscious biases and building open dialogue about these issues into the faculty hiring process. "We can get institutions talking about it," Handelsman said. "We can bring it up within search committees. We can spend time reviewing candidates. We can include strong women and minorities on evaluation committees."

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Handelsman's institute at the University of Wisconsin studies the barriers to advancement of women in science and engineering, and develops interventions. The institute provides information on training programs to help educational institutions reach these goals.