Filling the research assistant position that just opened up may seem straightforward enough: Hire the most qualified candidate for the job. But it’s not just what’s written on the resumes or the candidates’ demonstrable skills that will sway the decision. Biases based on gender, race, and other factors can creep in unconsciously and cloud judgment, even when someone has the best of intentions, hindering efforts to broaden participation in science.
Hiring new personnel and making admissions decisions may seem mundane and administratively burdensome at times, but they’re critical transition points in junior scientists’ careers. And minimizing the effect of biases not only encourages equal opportunity, it also ensures that you find the best person for your lab or department.
Federal agencies and companies have implemented some policies that have successfully reduced the impact of biases, as a recent White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report describes. But you don’t have to wait for institutional action to start changing how you address biases in your own hiring practices and professional responsibilities. Here are some ways you can proactively referee your unconscious biases.
Recognize your biases. Everyone has biases, according to the literature—even related to groups they identify with themselves. Women science professors, for instance, are biased against women trainees, as reflected in how they perceive a prospective trainee’s competence and the recommendation letters they write. To confront your own biases, you first have to recognize them. One approach is taking implicit association tests to identify your personal biases (although some question the reliability and validity of the tests). You may be surprised by the results.
Be consistent. Biases can affect your expectations of candidates from different groups, which can manifest as, for example, unconsciously evaluating men and women by different standards. You can avoid the problems that come from shifting criteria by establishing what you’re looking for in a candidate in a precise, structured way before reading the applications. Create an evaluation form that lists the traits you are looking for and how each applicant rates. (These rubrics that some university departments have used in faculty searches may be a useful starting point.) As you go through the application packages, write both highlights and reservations for each candidate, and be able to explain your reasoning for considering or forgoing a candidate. Also, because a person’s name can reveal information about their identity that could lead to bias, such as their gender, race, and ethnicity, consider blinding yourself during the initial application screening to make your evaluations as evenhanded as possible.
Track your results. There‘s no immediate way to tell whether your mitigation strategies have been successful. Over time, though, you can amass data on the outcomes to help you determine what’s working and what isn’t. In addition, periodically reflecting on your evaluations can be constructive. Some questions you can ask yourself include: Have you been consistent with your criteria? Are you inadvertently screening out minority candidates? Do you underestimate or undervalue candidates’ abilities because of their gender, ethnicity, or family responsibilities?
Get out of the rut. In addition to being thoughtful about your biases when you’re evaluating candidates, you can work actively in your daily life to get out of the habit of making automatic associations. To start, identify the expectations you have that are based on stereotypes and replace them with positive examples that contradict them. If you find yourself automatically assuming that girls do poorly in math, for instance, take the time to step back and name some female math professors to yourself. And make the effort to go out and meet new people from various backgrounds. Learning more about their perspectives and ideas will help make your perception more nuanced.
As you incorporate these strategies into your work routine, keep the momentum going by sharing your experience with your colleagues. Change can be slow and subtle, but it can happen. You just need to start.