Unconscious Bias

Astronomers know all about bias. We learn to anticipate and correct for biased samples and surveys early in our careers. For instance, when we started finding exoplanets, most of them were Hot Jupiters. Did we conclude that all exoplanets are actually Hot Jupiters? Of course not. In much the same way, individuals have biases, and we often don’t know it. These “unconscious biases” have real effects on how we observe and interact with one another. It’s human nature to self-identify as a member of various groups, and to unconsciously favor certain others based on the groups we classify them into.

Multiple studies suggest that unconscious bias is at work in the scientific community and that it impacts the success of those affected by it.  A recent paper examining unconscious bias in HST proposals found that from 2001 – 2012, male PIs had a higher success rate of being selected than female PIs (23.5% vs 18.1%).  One study found that science faculty tend to have a subtle gender bias in favor of male students. With regard to the hiring process, studies have found that resumes with African American names get 50% fewer callbacks than identical resumes with white names and letters of recommendation tend to portray women as teachers while men are portrayed as researchers and professionals. Additionally, an investigation of workplace performance reviews found that women were much more likely than men to receive negative feedback, often related to their personality such as being “abrasive” or “bossy.” This isn’t an individual conscious choice, but rather a series of unspoken cultural and societal traditions. This is why, for example, women can be biased against women just as strongly as men can.

We can start to work towards a solution by first accepting that everyone has biases, educating ourselves about the real effect and its impact, and reflecting on our teaching and advising practices that may contain some biases.  

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