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Researchers Work to Address 'Persistent' Bias in Academia

To address what they call persistent gender, racial, and ethnic bias in academia, scholars at Skidmore College and Yale and Leiden universities have recommended specific, rigorous interventions that lead to positive outcomes.

by Skidmore College
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The researchers, led by Skidmore Assistant Professor of Psychology Corinne Moss-Racusin, include John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman of Yale University; and Jojanneke van der Toorn of Leiden University. The group’s work is detailed in a paper published in the current issue of Science magazine (Vol. 343, Feb. 7, 2014).

“Our previous work has demonstrated that persistent, subtle biases undermine the career advancement of promising female and racial minority scientists, as well as the diversity of the scientific workforce and the advancement of the scientific enterprise more broadly,” said Moss-Racusin. “To target these pernicious biases, we need carefully designed, systematically tested, and rigorously implemented interventions. Unfortunately, although many diversity interventions have been in place for decades, few have been thoroughly evaluated to determine whether they effectively reduce biases and increase diversity. We argue that researchers must take a scientific approach to the development, assessment, and implementation of diversity interventions.”

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The scholars identified two types of bias that contribute to fewer female and minority scientists. Implicit biases, those that are “automatically activated and frequently operate outside of conscious awareness,” are chiefly responsible for inequitable treatment of scientists. The authors note, “Although likely unintentional, implicit biases undermine skilled female and minority scientists, prevent full access to talent, and distort the meritocratic nature of academic science.” Explicit biases, which are “conscious and deliberate,” also are a factor. Such biases not only lower the number of female and racial minority scientists, but also contribute to a lower level of research funding by federal grant agencies for these individuals.

According to Moss-Racusin, “Successful interventions must reduce implicit and explicit biases in order to effectively boost diversity.” Acknowledging that diversity training programs can lead to backlash and failure to correct the problem, the scholars suggest interventions that incorporate “active learning techniques,” such as exercises, activities, and discussions, which “dynamically engage participants.”

Toward that end, they provide a framework that includes four specific design elements leading to three measurable outcomes. According to Moss-Racusin, this approach uses the “same standards for measuring outcomes that we have for science in our disciplines.”

The researchers recommend incorporating tested interventions into the responsible conduct of research (RCR) courses that are currently mandated by such federal funding agencies as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Said Moss-Racusin, “RCR courses were instituted based on serious concerns about the fair treatment of human and animal research participants. The next logical step is to take the ethical and fair treatment of researchers themselves just as seriously, by adopting a scientific approach to ameliorating subtle biases that can undermine responsible research practices just as systematically as many of the topics already included in established RCR courses.”