Our number one careers New Year’s Resolution? Challenge our own implicit biases
Guest post by Joanne Kamens, Executive Director, Addgene
What is wrong with women? Why is it that women do 66% of the work in the US, but earn only 10% of the income? Why is it that women working full time, year round in Maryland are paid only around 83 cents to every dollar earned by men in the same roles? Why is there still such a huge disparity in the numbers of women in leadership roles, especially in science and technical fields?
For a start, women in science still have to deal with blatant sexism. Take a recent Facebook posting by Professor Dario Maestripieri who shared this with his “friends” during the last Society for Neuroscience conference. Some of these ‘friends’ were women who work in his lab. Dr. Maestripieri posted:
“My impressions of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.”
Is this type of sexism still the main problem for women? I don’t think so. I was heartened by the online community’s response to this Facebook posting – there was an outpouring of disdain and strong statements of how this can no longer be tolerated. This type of offense is easy to see and easy to combat by speaking out. I think the real threat to equity and diversity is more insidious and less tangible.
About 13 years ago while working as a Senior Scientist at BASF, I realized one Friday that I had spent a whole week in meetings and not seen one other woman in any of them. And, by the way, in three of these meetings I had been asked to take the minutes for no apparent reason. Behaving like the scientist I am, I started doing research to figure out where all my female classmates had gone (we were 50% women in grad school). I discovered a huge amount of sad data on the problems faced by women in science and women at work more widely -these problems seemed massive with so many possible facets. I didn’t completely despair.
I am a woman of action, so I figured out ways I could start helping. I developed an interest in mentoring, which my research suggested to be one of the approaches that was working to solve inequities for all types of minorities in science. These days I am thinking about this a little differently. I still think mentoring and sponsorship play very important roles in career success. However, real change has been slow. I have come to think that the different “intangible” barriers to career equity actually share one common explanation: the influence of implicit bias.
The concept of implicit bias arose as a way to explain why discrimination in all forms persists, even though extensive research clearly shows that people oppose it. In their publications, social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji argue that our social behavior is driven by learned stereotypes that operate automatically – and therefore unconsciously. They have developed an eye opening test called the Implicit Association Test, which has become the standard for measuring implicit bias. You can take the test online https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ to see your own implicit biases in action.
We all have implicit biases that subtly but profoundly affect our expectations of the people we work with. We have all been exposed to and share the implicit bias that women aren’t as good at work as men. And we share a similarly deep bias that men aren’t as good at home as women. These biases are so deeply ingrained in us that we usually don’t realize we have them.
It is more than a theory – gender bias is actually something that can be studied and quantified, such as the recent paper by Corrinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues at Yale who examined gender bias among scientific faculty in academia. They found that both male and female faculty participants rate male job applicant as signiﬁcantly more competent and hirable than an (identical) female applicant (read the full story here). They also rated the male as more competent than the female and were prepared to pay him more. So is it any surprise that fewer women are hired in scientific positions? That women are offered lower wages? Or that they are provided with less mentorship and support?
Another revealing study demonstrates the disparities in recommendation letters for men or women. In this study Trix and Psenka analyzed the words used in 300 recommendation letters. The data showed that for women the describing words are more often “grindstone words” like hardworking, conscientious, dependable, diligent, dedicated, and careful, while men were described with words of accomplishment, success, and achievement. Once again, the bias was prevalent regardless of whether it was a man or a woman writing the recommendation letter.
I think the different forms of gender bias have been best described by the Gender Bias Learning Project at the Center for WorkLife law at University of California Hastings Law School. It has defined four categories describing the most common manifestations of gender bias in the work place.
1: Prove It Again! In traditionally male dominated jobs, men are presumed to be competent, while women often have to prove their competence over and over again. One of the most common examples of “Prove it Again!” is the double standard that men are judged on their potential, while women are judged strictly on what they have already accomplished.
2: Double Bind. Also known as “ball-breaker or bimbo syndrome” or “he’s assertive, she’s aggressive” syndrome. Women who adhere to traditionally feminine roles meet with benevolent approval—but are not seen as go-getters. Women who don’t adhere to feminine scripts are respected but seen as having personality problems. Another example of the same pattern is when self-promotion is seen as inappropriate in women (“she’s a shameless self-promoter”) but appropriate in men (“he knows his own worth”).
3: Maternal Wall. Implicit biases linking motherhood with lack of competence and commitment. Comparing women with identical resumes, the woman with children is: 79% less likely to be hired and she is offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, whereas those without children are twice as likely to be promoted.
4: Gender Wars. This is the manifestation of bias that results in women preferentially blocking progress of other women: “I didn’t have any help, why should I help her.” Anne Litwin studies relationships between women and has found that women in the work place behave like oppressed minority groups. She suggests women have internalized the negative stereotypes about their own group and turn on each other as a result of feeling powerless to make change.
What these examples all share is that they aren’t easy to regulate with laws or even to make a stand against. Because they are so hard to quantify, they are hard to eradicate.
I went back and looked at some of my own recommendation letters, and was shocked and disturbed to see that I too had fallen into the trap of using language for women about interpersonal strengths and for men about accomplishment and scientific knowledge. But it doesn’t happen anymore. The good news is, when I became aware of what I was doing, I was able to stop it.
We all have to actively and regularly raise awareness so that we make it harder for people to say, “I just didn’t realize”. We need to talk about bias, point out infractions to our colleagues and friends, and watch our own actions to make sure we aren’t falling into any bias traps. We can’t pretend we don’t notice diversity of gender, race or sexual orientation. Of course we notice, but we have to be aware we are noticing, make sure to evaluate fairly and give equal opportunity for advancement and success to everyone that deserves it.
Dr. Kamens received her PhD in Genetics from Harvard Medical School then spent 15 years at BASF/Abbott where she led discovery research projects on small molecule and antibody approaches to inflammatory diseases, ultimately serving as Group Leader in Molecular Biology. In 2007 she joined RXi Pharmaceuticals as Director of Discovery and concluded there as Senior Director of Research Collaborations. In 2011, Dr. Kamens became the Executive Director of Addgene, a mission driven, non-profit dedicated to helping scientists around the world collaborate. Dr. Kamens founded the Boston chapter of AWIS and served as a Director at large of Mentoring for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Boston Chapter. She serves on a number of other non-profit boards and speaks widely on career development topics in person and via Webinar. Follow her on Twitter: @jkamens www.linkedin.com/in/joannekamens