Giving Women in Academia Genuine Equal Opportunities


For this International Women's Day, Ingrid Robeyns in Crooked Timber (image from Wikimedia Commons):

I want to use this occasion to share some thoughts about how to given women in academia a fair chance. I’m not talking about affirmative action or quota, but rather making both the environment more welcoming to women, the formal practices fairer to women, and the informal practices such that they are less disadvantageous for women. The reason why these things need to be discussed is that I increasingly encounter academics (mostly men, I fear) who think that there are no further issues with the environment/procedures/practices, and who believe that in reality women now get better chances in academia than men. While there may be isolated cases of such favorable treatment of women, my judgement of the situation is that all things considered many women are still in many (subtle and not-so-subtle) ways disadvantaged, and that unfortunately many academics do not understand how the practices in academia are disadvantaging women. So, let us look at some of these factors, and ask what each of us can do to give women an equal chance in academia.

Implicit bias
In many situations the causes of women’s unequal chances are small and not visible to those not trained to diagnose the situation. One cause is the effects of implicit bias, which implies that if a piece of work is being done by women, it will be judged of lower quality than exactly the same piece of work done by me, due to non-conscious associations we hold. Or, a certain skill, capacity or personality trait will be judged positively if we see it in a man, and less positively or even negatively if it’s a trait of a woman. A typical case is being assertive, which is in men seen as a sign of leadership, but in women quickly interpreted as being aggressive. Implicit bias is often at work in how we judge CV’s and publication list: a woman with a strong publication list will be seen as ‘promising’, a man will be seen as ‘excellent’. These differences in evaluation are documented in studies on implicit bias, but many colleagues (from various universities and fields) who know about implicit bias, have seen it work in evaluative situations (like hiring committees) in which the work and capacities of men and women were evaluated.