IOP workshop examines unconscious bias

27 November 2013

Unconscious bias is deeply ingrained in more people than is often realised and it affects women’s progress in science, but it can be changed or mitigated.

IOP workshop examines unconscious bias

These were among the key messages from an Unconscious Bias Workshop organised by the IOP on 12 November as part of its diversity programme.

The need to make rapid judgements and decisions based on sparse information was vital in everyday life, according to Pete Jones, a chartered psychologist and psychometrician who spoke at the workshop. But problems arose when this fed into unintentional preferences for certain types of people, he said. Functional MRI scans taken when various faces were flashed onto a screen showed that people’s brains reacted to faces of a different ethnicity from themselves much more quickly than they could consciously register, he said.

Research had also shown that women as well as men strongly associated men with science. In numerous countries, the strength of this association was a sound predictor of test scores in maths and science SATs at age 12 or 13.

Jones said: “We have a bias blindspot and can see it in everyone else but not in ourselves. People tend to screen out contributions from people who are not like them.” This had an effect on recruitment and management in the workplace, he said, and was self-reinforcing. If a man was seen as more competent, even if this was based on no evidence, he tended to be given more challenging tasks and honest feedback. “So it’s not long before he doesn’t just look more competent – he is more competent,” Jones said.

The brain’s unconscious processing is huge compared to the amount of conscious processing, he said, and finger-pointing and blame were counterproductive. “I spend time with people who say ‘we’ve spent millions on this – why isn’t it changing?’. Policies and procedures are great but we are chasing the wrong thing.”

Triggers such as tiredness, stress, and emotional and cognitive overload made the brain fall back on its hardwired biases, he said, and managing these triggers could help, along with humour and role-play.

The workshop also heard from Prof. Paul Walton, of the University of York’s Department of Chemistry – the first in the UK to attain “Gold”, its highest gender equality mark, in the Athena SWAN Charter scheme. Prof. Walton was instrumental in its achievement, in which examining the role of unconscious bias played a key part.

He said that there was a wealth of social science literature on unconscious bias. A Swedish research council timed how long its funding panels spent discussing research proposals. It found that they spent five times as long discussing proposals from males as from females, but were convinced that they had spent equal times on each, until they were shown the results.

He described the phenomenon, familiar to many in the workshop, in which in a meeting of about 10 men and 10 women, a woman’s idea can be ignored only to resurface a few minutes later as a man’s idea and be taken seriously. “The woman who had the idea in the first place has a choice – either to say ‘that was my idea’ or to keep quiet. The majority will do the latter. At the next meeting the woman who had the idea may think ‘do I speak up loudly and appear like a man, or do I keep quiet?’. If the head of department says something like ‘wait a minute, Mary had that idea some time back’, people will take notice. Heads of department, vice chancellors and chief executives have a particular role to play because people emulate them.”

His department had taken practical measures such as flexible working, annualised hours, and a guarantee that people choosing part-time working could resume full-time work any time in their career. The issue of women on maternity leave losing ground was addressed by committing more resources and being prepared to change budget priorities. Concentrating on quality rather than quantity in research papers had helped in tackling the long-hours culture, and when the head of department said a meeting was stopping so that he could pick up his children, its policy of scheduling meetings for core hours started to work, he said.

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