Reflections of a white, male, European researcher on unconscious gender biases in academia
“Who the hell am I to talk about this issue, anyways?!”
Late last year, I was asked to write a blog for the Early Career Ecologist Section of the ESA, and I initially chose to focus it on a rather controversial topic: gender bias in academia. Now, the truth is that I’ve been a bit hesitant to get my act together to write these few lines during the last weeks because, well, the official excuse (which is a good one, though!) is that I just moved institutions from down under to England… but perhaps a more honest reason is that lately I’ve been feeling like I’m not the most appropriate person to write about this topic. See, I’m white, I’m European, and I’m a male… it pretty much almost does not get any more privilege-y in academia than that… if English were my first language, I’d have hit the jackpot of academic privileges. However, after some months of reflection, I’ve come to the resolution that more men should be talking about gender bias, as it is an issue that affects both women and men. And note that I’m by far not the first one to do so – see for instance this blog by Tim Coulson.
Many research articles have found that a balanced sex ratio results in a healthier work environment and greater productivity both inside, and outside of academia. From that perspective alone, male researchers should strive to think objectively about how our un/conscious actions may affect gender participation and fair opportunities. Let me give you an example: go back to the seminar series of your department… how many speakers are women and how many men? And how many were women from outside your institution, that is, women that were explicitly invited to come give a seminar at your department? No need to answer, I have a pretty good chance of guessing your response…
The issue appears rather clear: when I was asked just one or two years ago who were the leaders in my field (population ecology and life history theory), I’d immediately come up with a rather long list of… yes, you guessed it… all men. When given the opportunity to run workshops, working groups, eco-lunches, who do you think I would preferentially invite, men or women? Yep, you guessed it again. Mostly men. I look around me, and most of my active collaborators are still men… though I’m working on changing that. Still, what is wrong with this unconscious attitude and me?
The scenario that I describe above is at odds with the fact that I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by a perfect 1:1 sex ratio during my academic career thus far. My mentors during my BSc (Spain), postdoc #1 (Germany), fellowship #1 (Australia) were men, while my mentors in my MSc (UK), PhD (USA), and postdoc #2 (Australia) were women. My female mentors, especially, have been a true source of motivation; they have pushed me away from my comfort zone, and offered guidance when I needed it.
Furthermore, in the last couple of years, I have had the invaluable opportunity to learn about gender biases from female researchers that are also close friends of mine (see acknowledgements below). My very naïve perception of, for instance the so-known scissor-like pattern of the leaky gender academic pipeline (See Figure below), was that in ecology the sex ratio among graduate students and sometimes postdocs tends to be higher for women, so that the “issue” was merely a matter of time… that with a couple of generations those brilliant women would permeate through the system to occupy the leadership positions that they deserve (on that note, see how inspirational this and this are), and that once in power they’d be able to make things more fair for women. I now start to grasp that the picture is way more complicated. That academic environments often do not accommodate important needs that may differ among genders. That men in academia have unconscious bias, which are very difficult to get rid of, that the need for mobility towards opportunities affects us differentially… however, in the vein of trying to fix all of this, the first step is acceptance of these biases.
Figure 1. Gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences at the higher academic levels (B to E). Source: Higher Education Research Data Collection 2012, Department of Education; Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia. Source: https://www.science.org.au/sage/gender-equity
At the University of Queensland’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), and across all CEED nodes in Australia, active discussions have been promoted to face and overcome this challenge. Some of the implemented activities and their impacts in this massive research group (~200 researchers nationwide) can be found in a manuscript that was recently published in Decision Point. The main take-home message of our discussion and the survey that we had participants take after such discussions was that there was a sense of improvement towards a better understanding on unconscious biases in academia. Naturally, this is not the end of the road, and the dialogue has just begun at CEED. We detail in there some suggestions to help with unconscious biases (which I’m going to shamelessly copy-paste here from Chauvenet et al. Decision Point 95, 2016):
1. Work the ratio: aim to have equal numbers of women and men present at workshops and working groups, as well as presenting plenaries or other seminars. In some disciplines, a higher ratio representative of the proportion of women in the field is appropriate.
2. Pass the opportunity along: if you are invited to participate in an event you can’t attend – recommend a woman to take your place (men are often the default).
3. Employ best practice strategies for gender-equitable recruitment, including:
a. Have well-defined selection criteria
b. Make the first round of the selection process blind: keep names off applications
c. Use structured interviews and evaluate every individual based on their actual merits relative to opportunity, rather than perceived correlates of merit.
d. Avoid group think – individual interviews before panel discussions prevent dominant personalities and bias influencing all panel members’ perception.
4. Encourage women to lean in – at all levels (and conversely, men to lean out when appropriate): this includes for promotions and awards.
5. Build the culture: create a workplace culture where people are encouraged to speak out against bias, and it is safe to do so.
6. Allow for flexibility: workplaces which allow for flexibility in working environments, e.g. working hours, travel commitments, options for maternity and paternity leave, will benefit both women and men.
7. Manage your questions: seminar chairs can manage question time to encourage equal numbers of questions, and engagement, by both men and women.
These and other actions are already resulting in more balanced discussions during seminars, cooperation in workshops and manuscripts, and grant proposals within CEED.
My new work environment, the Department of Plant & Animal Sciences of the University of Sheffield, has just received the Silver Award of Athena Swan for their efforts to actively engage with and promote minorities among others. Their actions and efforts are fully documented here, and they include things like increasing the visibility of female role models, an institutionalized unconscious bias training for all staff members, committee meeting times outside of family times, monitoring of fair evaluations of applications regardless of gender, ensuring that career breaks are adequately considered during promotions, etc. I am very much looking forward to learning from their approach to unconscious biases in academia.
So, where does this leave me, white, European, male academic? It leaves me with the reflection that I need to think more about my actions, and how they may unconsciously affect gender engagement and opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, and certainly in a more tangible manner, it leaves me (and, I hope, the male researchers reading this) with the commitment to keep on learning about unconscious biases in academia, and to shut up and listen more when those affected by my unconscious biases speak.
Rob Salguero-Gómez is the Early Career Ecologist Section of the ESA, vice chair and the NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Sheffield, UK: comments that may have made readers of this blog upset are of my own. All others are the result of the patience of the following inspiring researchers in telling me about how and why I am unconsciously biased. Many thanks to Aurora MacRae-Crerar, Katie Vazquez, Jennifer Doherty, Lori Spindler, Emma Aronson, Brenda Casper, Bonnie Waring, Dalia Conde, Yvonne Buckley, Katrina Davis, Ali Chauvenent, Megan Barnes, Kerrie Wilson, Karen Mustin, Duan Biggs, Martina Di Fonzo, Natalie Cooper, Glenda Wardle, Jessica Metcalf, Hugh Possingham, and Brittany Teller.