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Unconscious bias holds back science

The diversity we see among PhD students isn’t currently reflected at all career stages. Professor Jim Smith, Director of Research at the Francis Crick Institute and Deputy Chief Executive and Chief of Strategy at the Medical Research Council talks about how being aware of our unconscious biases could help to change this balance to benefit science.

equality and diversity

About 50 per cent of people working on PhDs are women, and the percentage is about the same for postdocs, but when you get to group leader positions, the number of women plummets. Men and women are equally good at science, so if women are leaving the profession we’re losing some of our best scientists.  Science is poorer for the fact that we are losing women at the rate we are.

Other factors, certainly in the UK, also unfairly affect a scientist’s chances of success – including their ethnicity, sexuality and whether they have a disability. My message is that science, and all careers, must be accessible to whoever wants to do them.

My parents, whom I loved deeply, had their quirks with respect to gender, race and politics. Like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, you inherit some of these judgements. It is important not to be ashamed of these biases, but rather to be aware of them and to take steps to overcome them which is why we are rolling out unconscious bias training to our peer reviewers as well as members of our boards and panels.

Take an identical CV submitted by Mohammed and Jim – Jim is more likely to be shortlisted. And the CV submitted by Jim is more likely to succeed than Jane’s identical CV. Bias not only applies to recruitment, but also has implications for interactions with colleagues: whether people are listened to in meetings, who works on which task, how pay is negotiated or resources allocated, and so on. Becoming aware of what you are doing is the first step to addressing prejudices and preconceptions.

Dr Jim SmithThe MRC came into being circa 1913. I can’t tell you about its track record on gender equality for its first 80 years, but the truth is it was probably like most other organisations at that time. However, over the last 20 years the MRC has been making a difference. For example, the MRC pension fund was one of the first to enable employees to nominate a same sex partner to receive benefits should they die in service, we removed time restrictions for applying for awards and fellowships after completing a PhD and the MRC National Institute for Medical Research – one of the institutes that has become part of the Crick – was one of the first research institutes to be awarded an Athena Swan award.

However, we can’t ignore that female representation on the MRC’s Management Board and the Crick’s management team is bad. Seven of the MRC’s eight-strong Chief Executive and Management Board are male, eight of the Crick’s 11 board members are male, and 13 of its 17 Executive Committee members are male. The MRC Management Board has a slow turnover and the small numbers skew things a little but one of the things we say at the Crick is that ‘we are where we are’ and we have to work from there. We invite women, who may not be Board members, to attend meetings – it’s important to have women around the table. We think about this issue a lot and, in the long run, we hope to be able to do something about it.

I’m very pleased to be doing this work on gender equality and diversity. Too frequently, people see gender equality as solely a female concern. It’s important for men to help make the point that this isn’t simply a ‘women’s problem’: it’s a problem for science and society.

You can read more about the roll out plans for unconscious bias training in the RCUK Equality and Diversity Action Plan.

Adapted from the original interview ‘Why science needs women and men published on International Innovation on 11 May 2016.  Author, Karen Lindsay. 

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