How implicit gender bias can undermine academic meritocracy

How implicit bias can undermine academic meritocracy

New LERU report makes recommendations on the many ways in which gender bias can be avoided

Imagine a meeting room at a university with a promotion committee deciding on a professorial appointment. Two final candidates: one woman, one man. The woman is praised for a remarkable publication record given her family duties. The man is praised for his brilliance. One scenario: without further discussion, the man gets appointed. Second scenario: a trained observer informs the committee about hidden doubt raisers and tells them to judge on quality of publications. The woman gets a fair chance to be appointed.

The League of European Research Universities (LERU), associating 23 of Europe’s leading universities, has recently analysed in a new report the evidence on implicit bias. The study details various actions undertaken by LERU universities to counter such bias and formulates nine recommendations.

Gender imbalance

It is an uncomfortable present-day reality that the academic sector is one where women are strongly underrepresented, particularly in senior roles (21% women full professors and 15% heads of universities as an EU average according to the She Figures. Moreover, academe’s men have higher salaries than women, they have fewer precarious and short-term contracts, and they have higher success rates in research funding competitions. Despite some laudable efforts, progress is patchy and slow.

Looking at possible explanations for these gender gaps, there is one factor whose importance has hitherto been underestimated: implicit bias.

Bias is a cognitive process which can be defined as skewed information processing under the influence of context and accumulated experience. Broadly speaking, as human beings we act on the basis of internalised schemas, which help us to make the task of processing information efficient and manageable. However, these useful, cognitive “short-cuts” can also mislead us, because they tend to make us pay more attention to information that confirms our expectations and less attention to disconfirming information.

Bias is at play in many everyday situations, it affects all of us, and there are many issues that are influenced by bias, among them ethnic and regional identity, race, age, sexual and religious orientation and gender effects. In short, implicit bias means that human beings are not neutral in their judgement and behaviour; they have experience-based associations and preferences–or aversions–without being consciously aware of them. To be sure, implicit bias is not about men being biased against women; women may be biased against women, men may be biased against men, and bias also affects our judgement of those with a different cultural, ethnic, sexual orientation, etc.


There is a large body of research showing that still women are, on average, considered less fit for leading scholarly positions than men. For women to be deemed equivalently hireable, competent, or worthy of promotion, they must demonstrate a higher level of achievement than identically qualified men. In one well-known 2012 study by Moss-Racusin, research staff from university science faculties evaluated CVs randomly assigned to male or female names applying for a position of laboratory manager.

Males were rated as significantly more capable and hireable than females on the basis of identical CVs except for the male versus female name. Moreover, male applicants were assigned a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring than female applicants. This pattern of bias against women applicants was even stronger among female evaluators.

The evidence for implicit bias is well demonstrated by research and is impossible to ignore.


The good news is that there are measures that can be taken to help remove some of the bias from universities. For example, by providing bias training, using external evaluators and trained bias observers in selections, reviewing and debiasing job advertisements, allowing enough time for decision-making processes, etc. Importantly, implicit bias must be recognised by the university leadership, which should fully understand the impact of bias and possibilities to mitigate it.

LERU recommends to research institutions, funders and policy makers to monitor division of resources relative to gender and to undertake measures for correcting any bias. Recruitment processes should be transparent and truly merit-based. Trained external observers should help recognise and mitigate any gender bias; this includes also a critical evaluation of the language of recommendations. LERU recommends training selection committees and leadership to recognise and mitigate implicit bias

Universities and other research institutions should lead by example to eliminate gender pay gap and any gendered inequality of access to resources. Parental leave should be covered and exempt from research evaluation. Any gender bias in precarious contracts and short-term positions must be avoided.

LERU further points to the crucial role of leadership in initiating and implementing action against gender bias throughout the institution. Positive action is needed for a proper representation of women in all leading positions.

Women make up about half of the population. Gender equality is a cornerstone to build a just, inclusive and diverse society and truly merit-based universities. How to avoid or counter implicit bias is a topic that concerns us all, in universities, in the business sector, in our daily lives.

Jadranka Gvozdanovic, is professor of Slavic studies and rector’s envoy for equal opportunities at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, as well as chair of LERU’s thematic group on gender.

Katrien Maes, deputy-secretary-general of LERU

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