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Liveblogging Joan Schmelz on Unconcious Bias

Joan Schmelz, the chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, is here at the CfA to talk about Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat & Impostor Syndrome. I'll be liveblogging the event.

The Pratt Conference Room room is standing-room only! The audience is predominantly female in composition, but the Astro dept chair Avi Loeb and the CfA director Charles Alcock are in attendance. Awes! Lot's of students, too, including the REU summer interns, and many grad students.

Unconscious bias: men and women both unconsciously devalue the contributions of women. We're in this together! No finger-pointing in this room.

Stereotype Thread: The anxiety that [minorities] face in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their group. This anxiety alone can result in documented cases of lower scores on standardized...tests.

Side note: Sociologists consider 30% to be the critical mass for a minority group to make inroads. We have been at 30% women at the postdoc level for over a decade, and the percentage is increasing at the asst. prof level.

Impostor Syndrome: The inability to believe in one's own competence which causes the individual to live in fear of being "found out."

More info in AAUW Why So Few?

Advice: Give two-fer talks, with one science talk and one diversity talk per visit per institution. Men, too! Use unconscious bias to your advantage: the audience will be more receptive to this message coming from men. AAUW has excellent collection of slides and prepared text just for this purpose. Guess what I'll be doing in the near future.

Also, watch out for Joan's series of posts to appear on the CSWA blog.

Unconscious Bias

We all want a meritocracy. So we should be aware of and address bias.

- Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke conducted an experiment. The convened mock hiring committees comprising men and women. They are given two applications, one from Karen and Brian. Committees preferred Brian to Karen 2:1. But the CVs were identical! (note that no committee saw both Karen and Brian. The got one or the other, with the name being the only difference). Also, when evaluating for a more senior (tenured) position, Brian got the nod 4x as often!

- Similar experiment by Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) for John and Jennifer, evaluated for a lab manager position. On a score scale of 1-7, John scored 4.0 and Jennifer got an average of 3.3. John also got a much higher starting salary (~15% higher). Only difference was gender. This test was done across academic discipline of the hiring committee. Biology, Physics, Chem, etc.

Whoa! Where does this bias come from? Answer: A legacy of patriarchy.

Question from audience: How did they control for differences among committees?
Joan: Sociologists know statistics better than astronomers :) Be sure to read the articles for details of the methodology and data. I'm only presenting the highlights here.

Question from audience: What about anonymous applicants? Can that help the situation?
Joan: Difficult in a small community like astronomy, where we can guess the identity based on the contents of the proposal. Tough problem!
Comment from audience: For papers, referees want to know the identity to judge based on his/her record. (Discussion breaking out in audience on gender-neutral language).
Avi Loeb: Perhaps the best way to address this bias to make it explicit.
Joan: Exactly! This is why the current discussion is so heartening!

Joan: Relates a personal story of discovering her own unconscious bias in the process of reviewing proposals one year. Eye-opening process! Upon first review, the only two women in the dozens of proposals were ranked lowest. Upon reevaluation, the men's scores stayed put, but the women's scores moved to the midpack (not the best, but not the worst). The chair of the CSWA suffered from unconscious bias!

[discussion continues in the room! We haven't moved past slide ~10!]

If you think you are excepted, check out the Implicit Association Test! (readers: take the test today!)

Men and women both undervalue the contribution of women. Whites and non-whites undervalue the contribution of non-whites (Americans that is).

Stereotype Threat

Students selected based on excellent math SAT test.

Group 1: Test given under normal GRE conditions
Group 2: Group is explicitly told that test is "unbiased" and "gender neutral"

No difference in the exams!

Group 1: men and women got same average score
Group 2: women did much better than men!

On the SAT, the women got scores equal to the men, but with stereotype threat. On the GRE "test" there was no stereotype threat, so they performed at their true level, which was higher on average than the men in the experiment!

Again, the only difference was the statement that the test was "gender neutral" (see Why So Few report for more info)

Impostor Syndrome

STATUS Magazine (2011), see my post here.

Whoa! Joan is now citing my blog post on Impostor Syndrome!

Running short on time, so moving forward quickly:

See the CSWA Resource Page for more info on:
  • Two-body problem 
  • Work-life balance
  • Sexual harassment
  • Unconscious bias
Closes with an image of the cross-section of an onion. The middle is the science we're all after. The outermost layers are "Overt Discrimination," "Sexual Harassment." The latter changed with Anita Hill's bravery. Next layers are the topics of this talk: Unconscious bias, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome. We're dealing with these now. Next layers after that is work-life balance, two-body problem (solution!).

We hope that as we peel back the current layers that there won't be any more in the way of our pursuit of science as a meritocracy.


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