At a recent conference, one of the sessions was a power hour about issues women face in science. Attendees were divided into groups to discuss distinct issues. My group focused on implicit/unconscious bias. The biggest takeaway I had was that not being aware of the biases we might have or of how they may manifest is an obstacle to overcoming these biases. Although the power hour focused on women, bias is not limited to gender. In this post I want to highlight a few of the examples we discussed. Before I begin, I must emphasize that everyone falls into bias. In addition to having biases against others, we will also fall into bias against groups we identify with. Awareness is the key to doing better. I would also like to thank everyone that responded to my Twitter thread.
Bias can arise in language, such as gender bias does in letters of recommendation. The Arizona University, Commission on the Status of Women has put together this wonderful guide on how to avoid such bias. It lists adjectives to avoid such as compassionate and helpful, and adjectives to include such as accomplished and confident. Furthermore, it stresses the importance of mentioning research and publications and emphasizing accomplishments rather than effort. Keep it professional, make sure to use formal titles, and don’t include irrelevant personal life information. If you are worried, you can use this tool to calculate your “gender bias.”
If you are interested in learning more about linguistic differences in letters of recommendation between male and female applicants, you can read this article. Racial bias in letters of recommendations remains poorly studied, but the data that exist do show that it exists and mirrors that of gender bias.
The aforementioned pitfalls also happen during introductions of speakers. Very rarely does a women’s marital status have anything to do with the science or work she is about to present. Check out this on article on the five "Don'ts" of introducing female speakers. This also applies to written introductions or descriptions. One notable example is the facts section on the Nobel Prize website. The pages regarding women delved into facts about their personal life, whereas that of men focused mainly on their work.
Seminars and panels are yet another place in which bias may occur. The first obvious way bias shows up is in the composition of the speakers. We should strive to have panels that include both gender and racial diversity to not only reflect the field but to also provide role models for younger scientists. Additionally, we should be aware of how speakers are treated. During my graduate career, I noticed that female students were interrupted more than male students were. Often questions were directed towards their mentors as opposed to them. This treatment has happened to me, and I asked the person for their question, saying that I would be more than happy to answer it. If you are a mentor and this happens to your student, redirect the question to her. In general, it is important to talk to everyone with respect. Maintain eye contact, address everyone, and don’t talk over people. I have multiple memories of standing with my male labmate to have people only address him, in addition to only making eye contact with him. He would often interject and say that I was the senior student and would be more knowledgeable on the subject. During another incident my mentor introduced me and the male labmate to a visiting professor. The professor only shook hands and introduced himself to my labmate. My mentor made sure to introduce me again to nudge the professor into realizing what he had done. Small actions can still help fight against these biases.
"In general, it is important to talk to everyone with respect. Maintain eye contact, address everyone, and don’t talk over people."
Since undergrad, I have served on multiple boards of various organizations. Two types of incidents involving implicit bias come to mind instantly. 1. During a meeting, a female member would propose an idea, and it would be ignored or shot down. A few minutes later a male member would propose the same idea, and it would be praised. If you see this unfold in front of your eyes—and you will—be sure to give credit where credit is due. A simple statement such as “I believe XYZ mentioned this idea earlier” is sufficient. 2. I have been in meetings filled with women with the exception of one man. Another person would join and automatically assume that the man is the one in charge. This is an easy pitfall any of us could fall into. We should be careful about our assumptions and consciously challenge them.
On the topic of assumptions, humans naturally make these assumptions based on life experiences. However, this is where our prefrontal cortex needs to kick in. We must check them. Often, assumptions are made about people’s citizenship or background. For me, I face the citizenship one frequently. Sometimes it is the simple statement, “wow your accent is so good!” While other times it is more direct and I am asked when I came to this country. A Black colleague of mine has people assume that she grew up in a “rough” neighborhood or that her father wasn’t around. These sorts of assumptions help no one and in fact often waste time. Most of the time, they are about facts we don’t even need to know.
There are some biases that will require a little bit of self-reflection. When it comes to nominations for awards in the lab, is there a gender bias? Or an ethnic one? Let me be very clear: in most cases, I don’t believe anyone is going out of their way to nominate white men. However, society has made it “easier” for the public to notice their accomplishments and to expect higher standards from white women and people of color. Similarly, much of mentorship is “off the books.” As in, it can happen over dinner, drinks, or other events. If the events you host as a lab mentor favor a group or exclude one, this can introduce bias into the way you mentor.
Authorship is yet another place implicit bias can pop up. Considering how important publications are for careers, we must be very careful and fair in how authorship is given. It should not go to the person who asks for it. Rather, it should be given to those who have done the work. This might seem logical, but unfortunately many underrepresented groups get sidelined because preference is given to others who might be more vocal yet not necessarily be worthy of the authorship. One particular meta-research study showed that gender inequalities exist amount authors who contributed equally.
Implicit bias also makes it into day to day life in the lab. Does yours have a lab mom? The responsibility of cleaning and maintaining the lab should not fall only on the women of the lab. Additionally, lab managers can be men. As a mentor, you can help this issue by equally distributing work and by checking in to see who does the cleaning in the lab.
I like to clean. I also love to plan events. There is a long list of things I like to do and do well. However, when I applied to graduate school, I did so with the plan to graduate with a PhD and pursue a career in academia. I didn’t go to culinary school or learn to become a wedding planner. The same is probably true for many women you know in science. You might be thinking “where is she going with this?” Telling a woman, she would make a great “insert any job but scientist” is disrespectful to her life choices. There is no shame in any job, but comments like these come from not viewing a woman as a scientist but focusing on only a small skill set she might have. Yet these skill sets are often those needed to be a good scientist as well, such as being a good speaker or event planner.
As for my underrepresented comrades, these events can be frustrating and tiring. Find allies that will amplify your voices and fight for you. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself; you can make a difference. Make sure to not internalize the biases you face and to not repeat them towards others. Put yourself out there. Ask to be nominated for awards. Stop saying sorry. Instead, thank people for their time or patience. Lastly, make sure to practice self-care; it is not selfish.