We should all be aware of our unconscious biases

Physics teachers could unconciously steer girls away from physics. Credit: Institute of Physics

As scientists we believe we are rather good at weighing up the evidence and forming judgments appropriately. That is what we are trained to do and we would be horrified if we were accused of making up our minds as to the outcome of an experiment as soon as we switched the apparatus on, or believed that we could be well-informed about the spectral analysis from some far distant star merely by peering down a telescope.

Yet, when it comes to people, we are only too prone to make the equivalent snap judgments ­– and it’s not just physicists who do this, it appears to be just about everyone. So, if someone walks into the room at the start of an interview, do you literally and metaphorically start with a blank sheet of paper in front of you or do you immediately (if subliminally) think ‘wears an earring in one ear, don’t like that’ or ‘wears a skirt, don’t like that’? Or, equally, ‘I do like that’? Have you in fact already done something similar when reading their CVs and drawing up your shortlist, and so eliminated people without properly considering them? If you do, you are liable to fail to judge the person on the reality of how they actually answer your questions.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, am I accusing everyone of being racist, sexist or any other kind of -ist? No, I’m not. I’m merely saying that we all have our own internal biases, unconscious biases as the sociologists would say, and because they are unconscious they are very hard to deal with. If you think you are exempt, I suggest you try some of the tests over at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Unfortunately, it is all too difficult really to be free of such biases, instilled into us from an early age by the culture in which we live and the cues we pick up from it.

When it comes to associating science and gender, despite all the work I do around women in science, I still find I come out of as moderately biased against women. It is much easier to associate a male word such as uncle with a science word such as physics, than if presented with the pairing of aunt and physics. Try it through the Project Implicit website: you may be shocked (as I was). This is a topic that neuroscientist Uta Frith and I discussed in a recent Nature podcast where we both made this same admission: neither of us feel at all comfortable with this internal bias that we seem to carry. However, what I hope is different for us compared with some people who never think about the problem, is that we know we suffer from such a bias and so can try and consciously override our first impressions.

Even if you think you personally are free from this, there is ample hard evidence out there as to how we collectively behave. For instance, when confronted with identical CVs labelled with male or female names, a recent study (in the USA) showed just how much – both men and women – favoured the ‘male’ CV when considering appointing a lab manager. There are other studies which show how women’s work is less likely to be cited by other researchers and that letters of reference are also subtly different in the words used to describe men and women. All these things stack up and can make things just that little bit harder for the women. Most of the recent evidence is around gender, but of course unconscious bias can go much further. For further stark statistics examining the difference between what we consciously admit to and what our unconscious bias demonstrates, look at this ECU factsheet.

As an example, let me cite some recent striking comments about physicists and teaching from a well-respected head teacher, whom I think had better remain nameless. I have encountered her twice and each time she has made remarks I found rather shocking. In the first case I was debating with her (on the Today programme as it happens) the issue around the lack of girls doing Physics A-level, a debate prompted by IOP’s own study on the (lack of) progression of girls from GCSE to A levels in Physics. This head teacher proceeded to say something along the lines of ‘maybe girls just don’t like physics’, despite all the evidence in the report demonstrating the very significant difference in progression between single sex and coeducational schools. Such a finding has to be telling us something more than simply ‘girls don’t like physics’. She then went on to castigate the only female physics teacher she had ever had in her school (which presumably meant the teacher was identifiable, so I thought this was pretty unprofessional behaviour) as being the worst teacher she had ever had to deal with, if I remember her statement correctly. As the IOP report and its analysis makes clear, teachers (including head teachers) who carry that internal conviction that ‘girls don’t like physics’ may be subtly steering them away from the subject even without realising this s what they’re doing.

On a later occasion, at a round-table discussion about science education, this same head teacher went further and started pillorying physicists in general; I take it she isn’t one, although I’m not sure what her background is. She implied that physicists were inarticulate and needed a huge amount of in-school training to make half-way decent teachers. I got the impression that she would rather have had a chemist or biologist teaching physics in her school because they were ‘better’, regardless of whether they were confident and competent in teaching the actual physics content. She seemed willing to write off the entire cadre of physicists, presumably based on one or two individuals she had personally not respected. So, at an interview for a new teacher, I could quite imagine any unsuspecting physicist walking into the room would start off with a black mark against their name, regardless of their skills, experience and individual characteristics.

That is why this kind of attitude it is so dangerous. Some physicists may turn out to be bad teachers — just as some historians will fail to teach their own subject well. Maybe there are more bad teachers among the physicists than the historians, I have no idea. But what I do know is that to prejudge every physicist in the country as being ‘bad’ before they’ve opened their mouth amounts to an unreasonable — and possibly even pretty conscious — bias. It isn’t acceptable when it comes to physicists, or women, or ethnic minorities or any other category you may care to dream up. We must all be very wary of listening slavishly to our internal and unconscious belief systems.

There is no point internally thinking that as an intelligent, thoughtful person you couldn’t possibly think like that. A combination of social cues imposed from birth, often propagated by media caricatures, and one’s own experience of a handful of individuals within the category in question, can add up to significant prejudices. So, we should all be aware of our unconscious biases so that we can render them conscious. And then stamp on them. Undoubtedly that will help increase the diversity of our workforce overall and lead to the ‘best’ candidates actually getting the jobs they deserve, be they physicists or not.

Athene Donald

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.
Athene Donald
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