Overcoming unconscious gender bias in science evaluation

Never thought of being gender biased when performing evaluations? Taking the implicit association test could help make you more aware of this issue. Scientists often consider themselves to be rational and objective. But a growing batch of literature suggests the opposite. Particularly, when it comes to evaluating research. Male and female scientists alike tend to implicitly undervalue women’s scientific accomplishments. A 2012 EU-report, identifies unconscious bias in assessing excellence as one of the major problems women face in science.

The gender gap in science is a persisting problem throughout Europe. Fewer women than men occupy high-level positions. Fewer women receive excellence funding, such as through grants of the European Research Council (ERC). This is even true for the Nordic countries, which have traditionally promoted gender equality measures. “Women are still under-represented at the highest level of research institutions and we would like to understand that,” says Curt Rice, linguistics professor at the University of Tromsø, Norway. “Of course the answer to this is complex, but evaluation processes are part of it. That is where bias can come into play,” adds Rice, who is also the chair of the Norwegian committee for gender balance in research.

Evaluating other researchers is part of scientists’ daily routine. They review scientific publications or assess grant applications. They also write letters of recommendation or hire new faculty members. “There is concrete evidence for the implicit bias women face. Especially for the subjective evaluation of competence,” says Londa Schiebinger, professor of the history of science at Stanford University, California, USA, and director of the EU/US gendered innovations project.

Identifying the bias

So what are the solutions? In the USA, for example, the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE programme aims to facilitate women’s careers in science and engineering. Within this programme, the STRIDE committee of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, has been particularly successful, according to Schiebinger. As a result, “it is now almost standard practice in the USA before hiring to present committee members the data on subtle gender bias and let them draw their own conclusions as to how they can change their attitudes and behaviours,” Schiebinger says. “Scientists don’t want to be biased. They often simply aren’t aware of their unconscious biases,” she adds.

Another expert agrees. “Giving examples and presenting study results is most striking and convincing, particularly because we are scientists,” says Isabelle Vernos, research professor at ICREA , the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, in Barcelona, Spain. In her view, it is important not to invoke guilt feelings when communicating the issue. “We have mechanisms in our brain that help us to make rapid decisions. It is a natural way of dealing with the complexity around us. It is a result of our culture and education,” she says.

Gender equality

Vernos also chairs the ERC’s working group on gender balance. Its gender equality plan, adopted in June 2014, explicitly calls for “identifying and removing any potential gender bias in the ERC evaluation procedure.” The aim is to increase the number of women applying for grants and improve their success rates.

Amongst other measures, the ERC has therefore revised its application form. A study commissioned by the gender balance group found, for example, that the CVs of grant applicants differed profoundly from each other. “The CV used to be in a free format. Now we have a formatted CV to make sure that every applicant includes all relevant data. We think this helps women but also other applicants [who would not spontaneously present a very well formatted CV],” Vernos says. Applicants now need to highlight only a few publications—namely five publications for starting grants, ten publications for Consolidator grants—representing their scientific achievement instead of listing all publications. “We want the evaluator to focus on quality and not quantity,” Vernos explains.

Reducing the bias

Redefining the criteria for scientific excellence is indeed important to reduce biases, according to Carmen Leicht-Scholten, professor for gender and diversity in engineering at the RWTH Aachen University, Germany. “This generally favours researchers with a non-linear scientific biography,” she says. “Due to family work these are often women,” she adds. For example, the German Research Foundation (DFG), now also puts more emphasis on publication quality instead of quantity.

Making the gender of a grant applicant invisible may also help in reducing unconscious bias. But, according to Leicht-Scholten, this is difficult to achieve, particularly when high-ranking researchers are involved. “The community is small and therefore people know each other,” she says. Moreover, a study commissioned by the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and published in 2007, found no effects of so-called gender-blind applications. However, Leicht-Scholten is cautious to invoke simple explanations. “The problem is to distinguish between gender bias and other dimensions of diversity,” she points out.


Increasing transparency

Leicht-Scholten also calls for more transparency in decision and evaluation processes. In Germany, for example, several universities have published so-called codes of practices for professional appointments. These give advice on how to deal with gender-related aspects. “These have already become more transparent in recent years,” she says. Similarly, the new European framework programme for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, refers several times to making evaluation processes more transparent.

Quotas are another way of increasing gender awareness. More women on evaluation committees may lead to more woman applicants being promoted, as a large Spanish study about promotions in universities by the Minister of Science and Innovation revealed. Whether quotas may be an appropriate solution to the problem of unconscious bias remains an open question. However, quotas present other benefits, according to Curt Rice. “It makes clear to women that those kinds of positions are available to them. It provides role models,” he says.

Vernos also sees a need for increasing the number of women on evaluation panels. “It is not acceptable to have panels with no women at all,” she says. But she is also cautious. “Putting more women on the panel is not going to be the quick fix,” she says. Looking at the ERC statistics on gender balance, she did not find any correlation between the number of women in evaluation panels and the number of grants women received.

Cultural change

All experts agree that raising awareness not only among scientists but also among students would help in achieving a cultural change. “Training is very important. For example, professional skill courses for PhD students should include some discussions on this. Very shortly after you get a PhD, you start getting involved in evaluation processes,” Rice says.

For now, some have tested some pragmatic solution to raise awareness of gender-related issues among students. For example, RWTH Aachen University has integrated a compulsory course on gender and diversity perspectives within the first year of its civil engineering curriculum. While students were initially not sure about its necessity, they have come to appreciate the course, Leicht-Scholten says. “They think it is exciting because it is not only about women, but about diversity. It broadens their perspectives and encourages critical thinking,” she says. Likewise, Schiebinger is convinced that this is the way forward. “It is just one course, but the students get their toes wet,” she says. “They begin to understand the issues. Hopefully the next generation will be further along and not hold these unconscious gender biases.”

Constanze Böttcher
Constanze is a freelance science journalist based in Oldenburg, Germany

Photo credit: Éole Wind

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