Eight Ways We All Can Help to Improve Gender Diversity

Women and academia, why does this combination seem to be so challenging? Why do so few women make it to faculty positions, regardless of all the recent campaigns and awareness-raising (see for example this special issue from Nature) and the high representation of women at undergraduate and graduate levels? Is it the nature of the scientific world with its high pressure to continuously perform exceptionally? Or are we maybe expecting too much? Is changing this gender imbalance just a gradual and slow process and do we need to just wait a bit longer?

Alternatively, could this imbalance be related to something that is engraved in all of us, a tough bias that unconsciously affects our reasoning? And if so, is there anything we can do about it?

Dr. Corinne Moss-Racusin, assistant professor at Skidmore College, investigated this issue. She visited Stanford a few weeks ago, giving an inspiring talk about her work and its implications (see the Neuroblog post covering her talk).  Two years ago, her impressive PNAS article that revealed a very persistent gender bias among faculty members sparked a lot of attention from the scientific community. In this experiment, she sent out fake CV’s for lab manager applications that were scored by faculty members at various US universities. These CV’s differed only with respect to the first name: John or Jennifer. Results showed that John’s CV was consistently scored higher than Jennifer’s on all tested features: competence, hireability, and mentoring possibilities. Additionally, offered salaries were larger for John. Surprisingly, this difference was present for raters of both genders and was not affected by the strength of subjectively reported preexisting biases.

During her talk at Stanford, Moss-Racusin sketched the gender diversity problem as common knowledge. We all know there are little women in faculty positions, nothing new there, but the why-question is more complex. The strong and pervasive bias uncovered by Moss-Racusin appears to be a very important factor leading to a gender imbalance in academia. A nasty factor, as it results in inevitable, unintended, and unconscious decisions that we all make, but with which most of us do not in the slightest way want to be associated.

Just assuming that this bias exists in all of us (the data are pretty convincing, I must say), a vital question arises: What can we, the scientists, do? As biases are persistent, implicit, and often hard to notice in daily practice, are there ways to start noticing them and act accordingly? Below I will specify eight ideas you can use to start today:

1. Acknowledge!

First and foremost, we should all acknowledge the fact that we are biased, unintentionally: Even women, even female rights activists, even the writers of the paper in question, even YOU! And at the same time, please accept that having this bias does not make you a bad person, but not acknowledging it might. Only when you have made it to this point (it’s not that hard, really) you can start using this awareness in your daily practice. Got there? Great, then please read on!

2. Recognize

Biases come in several flavors and they can be very subtle. The Gender Bias Learning Project gives a clear explanation on their website regarding all the known and investigated biases by using short videos. You will be surprised at the extent of the biases that exist and how often you (unconsciously) practice them or perceive them around you once you become aware of them. The website also gives more general information concerning gender bias in science and it provides games and activities you can organize in your own institution (but see point 6 as well).

3. Practice

Tiny, consistently practiced actions can change a lot. Think about consciously revisiting mentoring schedules, hiring and promoting policies, and authorships, as well as creating and pertaining awareness among your colleagues by hosting the occasional journal club or discussion group. For conferences, workshops and job openings, think deliberately about women you can ask to speak or apply.*  When writing recommendation letters, reread the letter while continuously asking whether any biases are present (see the Gender Bias Learning Project website in point 2 for types of biases). Speak up when you feel you or someone else gets ignored or overtaken in a discussion, and encourage comments and questions from women during talks. I see many of these things already being practiced at Stanford, and believe they can really make a difference!

* To promote more gender balanced conferences in her sub-field, Dr. Anne Churchland (CSHL) generated a list of “Women who would be good speakers at a computational meeting”. And comic book enthusiasts may know that the author Paul Cornell has declared that he will no longer participate in non-gender balanced panel discussions; can we all make the same pledge for sessions at scientific conferences?]

4. Reverse

If you are a woman, remember that biases unfortunately often go both ways, so also consider any potential biases you have against yourself and try to spot these reverse biases (I made this term up) in your colleagues (e.g. “I cannot do [fill in any skill] as well as [my male competitor]”). Note: This also holds for many men and many other biases, don’t just think that because you are not female you will not be suffering from reverse biases either.

5. Sit at the table

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, addressed a few things we all can do to make our own contribution to improve gender imbalance, whether in science or somewhere else (see her TED talk). Women are often found to underestimate themselves, negotiate less, speak up less, and appear to literally less often “sit at the table”. As a consequence, they more often tend to think their success is related to external factors, rather than their own capabilities. Try to recognize these situations in your female colleagues and counter argue where necessary!

6. Intervene

Based on her previous research, Moss-Racusin has now created a scientific approach for implementing Scientific Diversity Interventions at universities to reduce gender biases. In their policy forum article in the current issue of Science, Moss-Racusin and her colleagues outline an evidence-based framework consisting of design elements and outcome measures that provide an important basis for such intervention programs. Important features of this framework are an active learning approach, using tools to engage with diversity issues, and the avoidance of assigning blame (see point 1). These guidelines can be used to set up a workshop at your university (see point 3).

7. Encourage

Encourage talent, irrespective of gender, by regularly complimenting them, putting them forward for talks and prizes, and connecting them to the right people. This is not just a tip for PIs, everyone can do their share to promote the people they admire. I am not sure that there is any solid research behind whether women need encouragement more than men to succeed (but see here), but I believe you can never do wrong by encouraging the people you admire, regardless of their gender: Recognition always feels good and is practiced way too little in academia! 

8. Beware

However, also be aware that we shouldn’t overdo it. No woman wants to be in a position where she knows that she got there merely because of her gender. In the end, such a situation will be less motivating than when you were hired for your skill set. All job applicants will have to be judged on their scientific abilities, not on their gender. However, the way towards, as well as life after, tenure can surely benefit from some gender bias awareness. And as outlined above, it is mostly in the little, daily practices that differences can be made!

To conclude, as Moss-Racusin, as well as many others, has shown, biases are implicit, persistent, and strongly engraved in our brains. Also, they often stay unnoticed and cannot be effortlessly changed. However, this does not mean that we shouldn’t try to be aware of them more often. Just remember that everyone has a gender bias and that creating recurrent awareness in yourself and your environment by practicing above points regularly is helpful. Doing this, we can hopefully come a bit closer to a more balanced faculty in the near future!