Some resources on implicit bias

Some of the comments to this post brought up the topic of implicit gender bias, and I thought the time might be ripe for a couple of pointers on the subject. Although I’m changing the context a little (from ethics training to search committees), the comments on reducing bias remain the same.

The first is that, in general, but with considerable caveats,* BOTH women and men are biased against women’s applications, papers and such. The issue of gender bias is NOT just a problem of men being biased against women.

In fact, let’s be clear – in all of these stories about gender, there are some men who may be more respectful of women’s work than some women, as well as the other way around. Gender is complicated, and not at all homogeneous in terms of how it impacts people’s behaviour. So let’s not just pin it on men, letting women who engage in this off scott-free, hey?

However, it does seem that no matter who is doing the interpretation, women in this context regularly get the short end of the stick. In fact, I now have conflicting views on the usefulness of using initials rather than first names in submitting work for review. On one hand, scholars in women’s studies have integrated first names in citations and references to highlight the fact that women are doing research, in contrast to the practice of using initials in citations which results in people presuming the maleness of authors. On the other, I just read somewhere (can’t remember where, will have to track it down, maybe someone else’s blog post? :-S Uh oh, the blogosphere now perpetuates unfounded information, what a shock) that people who submit papers and CVs with only their initials (presumably in some disciplines) are now presumed to be female and trying to hide it. (Can anyone help me with the source? Did I make it up? :-S ) Either way, women seem to be caught coming and going – if they use their first names they may be biased against by folks who were studied in older set of research, and if they don’t they may be biased against by folks who are trying to catch out the older research. As it were. More evidence that gender is complicated – it’s not simply a question of deciding “this is bad, so I’ll do the opposite,” because quite often the opposite also is bad for many women.

The second big point is that both men and women are more biased against women when they lack time to think through their decisions, particularly in hiring decisions. One of the best ways to counteract implicit bias is to encourage people to take enough time with their decisions, really think through each step and not rely on snap decisions. That’s why in the Harvard Implicit Bias assessments they ask you to click your first thought, not take too much time over thinking through it.

The Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) is an ADVANCE-grant funded organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it has some good tools on reducing bias in terms of faculty searches. In addition former ADVANCE co-PI Jo Handelsman has some good manuals (available for free online!) on how to reduce the impact of unconscious bias in mentoring and such. Links here:

I look forward to hearing some of your thoughts about this topic – consider the comments open (she said somewhat tentatively, but still with full power to delete trollish or otherwise stupid and unhelpful comments).

* Please forgive some of the gross generalizations here, and the unclear theorizing behind what we understand “gender” to be, and also put this all in the context of science and engineering work. In addition, at some point we should talk about what we mean by “biased” as the term is not at all as easy to define as many of us may think. Thanks. 🙂


  1. #1 Peggy Layne
    February 18, 2008

    Thanks for the nice words about Virginia Tech and our Advance program! Another recent article about implicit bias is Budden et al., Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 4-6.

  2. #2 volcano girl
    February 18, 2008

    Its nice, if HUGELY FRUSTRATING to know that gender bias does exist. I am dealing with a review right now from a man who is notorious for giving snarky reviews to young (female?) scientists. Some comments are so out of line and verge on personal attacks! For example, I work on very large, expensive, collaborative project and of course, I have to reference the other work that came before me or that people are working on now. The reviewer states, “there is a dirge” of references from outside my large, collaborative science team or on other systems. Out of the 90ish references for a 20-page paper, fully 50% were outside of the science team. Does that qualify as a dirge? The manuscript will be accepted after major revisions for a special issue. And really, after a week of work, it’s nearly finished and much improved. But what frustrates me most is that more senior (male) researchers are able to publish or present unoriginal and poorly organized science and get off with easy reviews.

    So, here is an Ask ScienceWoman or Ask Alice question: what is the best way to deal with a snarky review? After you address all constructive comments, is there any way to address the personal, way out of line attacks?

  3. #3 Tlazolteotl
    February 21, 2008

    In my experience, and granted it isn’t vast by any means, but if a comment is not substantive, you do have the option to just ignore it. It has not been my experience that editors won’t publish a paper just because every single comment in a review isn’t addressed. Every reviewer has their own particular hobby horse(s) to trot out (and I’m no exception). Journal editors are usually on top of the field enough to recognize substantive comments that authors should address, and they will also avoid the hobby horses if those are indeed not substantive to the paper.

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