Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Unconscious Bias within the SOT?

Written by Tao Wang, Ofelia Olivero, Linda Birnbaum, Leigh Ann Burns Naas, Myrtle Davis, Brenda Faiola, Marie Fortin, Laurie Haws, Courtney Horvath, Jessica Sapiro, Sharmilee Sawant, and Cheryl Walker

Unconscious bias is the tendency of individuals to categorize others on the basis of obvious traits, such as age, gender, and race (1). The human mind performs a large number of cognitive functions that allow us to perform complex tasks such as walking or riding a bicycle without conscious thought. In this context, unconscious bias is a normal part of how humans make decisions (2). Similar unconscious cognitions also occur in social interactions.

 

While some of these preconceptions are learned from our personal experiences, many are acquired indirectly from stories, books, movies, media, religion, and culture. Once formulated, they guide our responses, our first impressions and assumptions about the behaviors, capabilities, and potential of others. While not all forms of unconscious bias are harmful, some, such as gender bias, have the potential to influence fairness and equality of opportunity in the workplace, affect hiring decisions, performance evaluations, and promotions.

Professionals with higher levels of education often assume that they are immune to unconscious gender profiling and stereotyping. While it might be expected that great strides in the elimination of gender bias have been made by educated professionals, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (3) paints another picture.

A group of 127 professors was asked to evaluate the resume of a fictitious candidate for a laboratory manager position. Half of the evaluators received the resume where the applicant was named John, while the other half received the same resume except the name of the applicant was changed to Jennifer. The professors invariably rated John as significantly more competent and hirable than Jennifer (identical resume), and proposed a higher starting salary for John. Critically, this was true regardless of the professors’ gender, such that female and male faculties were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female candidate.

Recently, the Society of Toxicology (SOT) Women in Toxicology Special Interest Group (WIT SIG) looked into unconscious bias within the Society. The impetus for this self-evaluation was to explore the possibility that the large number of male recipients of major awards, compared with female recipients, was an indication of unconscious gender bias by members, men and women alike, of the SOT. The data were surprising and sobering. The historical disparity among recipients of major SOT awards between 1961 and 2015 was significant, and the fraction of women receiving these awards was noticeably small (Table 1). While the percentage of our female members in the SOT has been increasing steadily from 24% in the year 2000 to nearly 40% in 2015, the number of female awardees per year has generally remained constant (Table 2).

Although we have not analyzed the data based on the female membership over the 55 years of SOT history (adjusting for differences in the number of women in the Society for a given year for example), there appears to be convincing evidence in many other fields that the scientific efforts and achievements of women do not receive the same recognition as those of their male peers. In the paper entitled “The Matilda Effect in Science: Awards and Prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s,” the data obtained from 13 discipline societies (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medical) indicated that “While women’s receipt of professional awards and prizes has increased in the past two decades, men continue to win a higher proportion of awards for scholarly research than expected based on their representation in the nomination pool” (4).

If unconscious biases are pervasive and insidious as many reports indicate, is there unconscious bias within the SOT by both its male and female members? Such studies, at the very least, remind us that all SOT members should be “conscious” of “unconscious gender bias” during their decision-making processes, such as reviewing award applications, inviting speakers, electing leaders, etc. Recognizing unconscious preconceptions can ensure that we all advocate for and nominate our most outstanding colleagues, independent of gender or any other factor not based on merit. Please do nominate your outstanding female and male colleagues for the various SOT Awards. This article is not meant to be a full critique and examination of the SOT awards. It is for igniting the conversation and recognizing that SOT should be aware of the issue that anyone can potentially fall into.

Still think that this does not apply to you?  Take the test of unconscious bias developed by researchers at Harvard University. You may be surprised what you learn about yourself!

 

Table 1.   Major SOT Awards (from inception through 2015): Male and Female Awardees

Male

Female

Achievement

39

8

Arnold J. Lehman

33

4

Distinguished Toxicology Scholar

16

0

Education

42

2

Merit

49

3


 Table 2. Number of Total Awardees and Female Awardees by Year*

 

Year

Total awardees

Female awardees

2000

7

1

2001

7

1

2002

6

1

2003

8

2

2004

6

0

2005

6

0

2006

6

1

2007

7

1

2008

6

1

2009

11

3

2010

12

1

2011

11

4

2012

10

2

2013

11

2

2014

11

0

2015

9

1

*Awards accounted for: Achievement, Lehman, Distinguished Toxicology Scholar, Education, Founders, Leading Edge in Basic Science, Merit, Public Communications, Translational Impact, Undergraduate Educator, Congressional Science Leadership, Enhancement of Animal Welfare

References

  1. Vedantam, S. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, New York: Random House Inc.
  2. LeDoux, J. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon and Schuster
  3. Moss-Racusin, C.A., et al. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS 109 (41): 16474–16479, 2012
  4. Lincoln, A.E., Pincus, S., and Leboy, P.S. The Matilda Effect in Science: Awards and Prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Social Studies of Science 42 (2): 307-320, 2012.
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