Implicit or unconscious bias in universities

At the Women’s meeting at the Society Conference a couple of weeks ago Dr Amy L. Erickson, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge, gave an overview of one of the most serious issues affecting women in research today; the issue of implicit or unconscious bias in University departments and decision making. Here she summarises the key points for those who missed it, with some useful links and tips for more information.

The EHS took a pioneering approach to tacking gender inequality in academia by establishing its Women’s Committee in 1988 and collating a directory of women in the profession, published in 1993 and 1996, to improve visibility. Since then the number of women in the higher reaches of the profession has increased dramatically but still does not reflect the lower reaches, as reported by the Women’s Committee’s ‘Census of economic historians’ in 2007. The Women’s Committee is currently looking to set up a mentoring scheme and is actively seeking ideas on how to further approach the problems of implicit bias.

Many of us might consider our institutions relatively free from overt gender and ethnic bias. Blatantly sexist or racist comments are gratifyingly rarer now but implicit bias is widely recognised as a significant problem and the approach of individual institutions to ensuring it does not affect behaviour and decision making varies enormously. Some institutions in the UK require all new staff to undergo extensive online and face-to-face training and induction to make staff aware of how bias affects them in hiring and in teaching. Others may regulate for bias, and have large programmes to ensure gender, ethnic and ability balance but don’t train staff to be aware of the implicit issue, and so leave micro outcomes to chance. This may be through lack of coordination, or it may be because management perceive the issue is not thought to be affecting their institution.

Most institutions are only just beginning to become aware of the problems of implicit or unconscious bias. Judging from the discussion at the London’s women historians conference in March few institutions train or manage the issue of implicit bias formally. [ /]. The term is not meant to excuse overt bias, but to understand the micro-assumptions that we all make on a daily basis without thinking about them.

The term ‘implicit bias’ has been popularised by Harvard’s Project Implicit site where anyone can test their unconscious assumptions about race, gender, sexual orientation, or mental health, while contributing to the project’s data collection. The Equality Challenge Unit prefers ‘unconscious’ bias, defined as ‘bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences’.[1]

A significant body of psychological research has demonstrated that these unconscious assumptions work to the detriment of women and members of ethnic groups other than white in a professional situation. Even very slight, incremental disadvantage adds up to significant professional disparities, as meticulously explained by Virginia Valian’s Tutorials for Change, which examines ‘gender schemas’ (implicit bias) and science careers. The distinction, identified since the 1970s, between our instinctive mind and our reflective, ‘rational’ mind, is the difference between thinking fast and thinking slow (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011). We all need to think more slowly about the problems inherent in our fast thinking.

Why it matters

When a CV has a female name at the top it is ranked lower than if the same CV has a male name at the top. If it has a typically white British name at the top it is ranked higher than if the name is identifiably of a different ethnicity.[2]

Letters of reference for job or higher education applications differ systematically according to whether the applicant is female or male. Phrases to describe white males are more fulsome and attribute innate talent; everyone else is more likely to be described as hard-working, using more pedestrian adjectives.

Unconscious stereotypes that advantage white males are made by everyone – women and men, feminist and non-feminist, and all races (of those studied, which tend to be in the USA).

The unconscious assumptions made by our non-rational minds means that our judgments of merit are inseparable from sex and race. In other words, we are collectively incapable of operating a meritocracy. Instead, we operate a white male preference system — in graduate admissions, in hiring, and in teaching. Anyone who doubts the differential way in which academics are treated on the basis of sex may wish to read transgender scientist Ben Barres’ discussion of his experience in academia first as a woman and then as a man.[3] The interactive Gendered Language in Teaching Reviews allows you to investigate how female and male teachers are systematically described differently by students.

The effects of stereotypes on members of negatively stereotyped groups is another field of psychological research, known as ‘stereotype threat’. Interestingly, everyone (including white men) is vulnerable to stereotype threat in specific circumstances where they do not fit the stereotype of success in that field. The best introduction is Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (2010) which he summarises in his lectures on the topic, such as the recent one in the Distinctive Voices series. For an updated review of the literature, see

What we can do about it

We can all use our privilege as academics to improve the situation.

  • In terms of hiring, we can ensure as part of Athena Swan processes that implicit bias training is required of all those involved.
  • In reference letters, notice the language used and the attributes ascribed, remembering that women consistently have to meet a higher standard than men to get the same recognition.
  • For both committee meetings and academic seminars, train chairs in the active use of inclusive approaches. On seminar chairing, see David Chalmers’ ‘Guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion’ and the British Philosophical Association’s Good Practice Scheme on chairing, and these procedures can be applied to chairing committee meetings as well.
  • Take an active role in noticing contributions from negatively stereotyped group members which may get overlooked or underappreciated.
  • Double-check our reading lists, both for subject matter and authors. It matters whose stories we tell, and whose research is sanctioned by inclusion.
  • Use counter-stereotypical examples.
  • Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning has an online review of the classroom issues and techniques that can be used to address them, at This can be incorporated in training for new teachers.

There are more good ideas for Taking Action from the blog of Anne Murphy, Women’s Committee chair at the EHS, from the Royal Historical Society’s 2014 report on Gender Equality in Higher Education, and from the British Philosophical Association’s 2011 report Women in Philosophy in the UK, and its Good Practice Scheme.

[1], p.1

[2] The most convenient place to find further references is in the 2013 literature review commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit Other studies have been done in the USA and in Sweden.

[3] ‘Does gender matter?’, Nature 442 (13 July 2006) | doi:10.1038/442133a

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