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Scientists struggle with sexism and racism: ‘We think these bias studies don’t apply to us’

Scientists pride themselves on objectivity — they deal in empirical methods, double-blind studies, data-driven conclusions.

But when it comes to human bias, even the most rigorous researchers are vulnerable. At the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington — attended by 30,000 brain scientists from around the world — Jo Handelsman presented the harsh realities faced by women and minorities in science.

“We have this tendency as scientists to not want to believe in this data, not believe that it applies to us,” she said Monday after going through study after study documenting the problem of bias in the academic world.

Handelsman, a molecular biologist, served as White House associate director for science during the Obama administration. In recent years, she has become a leading researcher of bias in the scientific community. She synthesized the findings from hundreds of studies conducted over 30 years, including her own work, that show the depth of bias problems in the scientific community in virtually every aspect of hiring, pay, opportunity, publication and tenure.

She cited, for example, national data showing that men with bachelor’s degrees receive higher salaries than female counterparts. Hiring studies have revealed that applicants with male names were more likely to be contacted than those with female names even though their other information is identical.

She delved into one of her own studies — a 2012 experiment that involved 127 academic scientists at six top research universities. The participants were sent a description of a student applying to work in their lab who was randomly given the name Jennifer or John. She found that professors were less likely to offer a job or mentoring to women. And when a job was offered to a woman, it was at a lower salary.

Handelsman, who spent much of her career as a professor at Yale University and now heads the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, described how in recent years she has been invited to present this data to faculty at Harvard, Yale and many of the country's other prestigious institutions. The most common response, she says: The bias may exist in other places, but “it's not like that here.”

“We’re trained to be objective, so we think these bias studies don’t apply to us,” she said. But just as scientists run “blinded” studies to keep details secret from themselves to ensure their own biases don't creep into the data, Handelsman argued, they need to take steps to ensure equality in the field today and in the future generation of scientists being trained in their laboratories.

Among her suggestions for mitigating bias in labs and academic institutions:

  • Identify your criteria for hiring before reviewing applications to prevent after-the-fact explanations for biased hiring choices.
  • Adopt a blind review process at scientific journals. She cited a surprising study showing that after a blind review process was adopted at one ecology journal in 2008, the number of papers published by women increased by 30 percent.
  • Hold training sessions on how unconscious biases can influence hiring.
  • Make bias part of larger regular discussions with colleagues so that faculty don't feel singled out and everyone is held accountable.


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