Unconscious bias 101

Or: why equal opportunities are still not reached in academia

Basic information, links and my opinion on the topic

Topic 1: Equal opportunities issues are not (always) gender issues!

Browsing through German university homepages, one can find many gender equality or diversity concepts, from which several actions have been derived. These usually include general information and consulting, publications, services for parents, outreach to high schools (e.g. Girl's day), mentoring programs and financial support (travel grants, scholarships, student assistants...). More rarely, one may find also explicitly stated that equal opportunity offices are also concerned with the improvement of work opportunities for disabled employees.

In this post I would like to point out that there is also another group, currently disadvantaged in their access to university positions and hiring strategies, that seems to be forgotten by policy makers: young scientists from so-called disadvantaged social backgrounds, e.g. children from a family of workers, small farmers, or immigrants. You may, first of all, remark that this is not a minority in the sense of the word, as undergraduate student enrollment figures show that this group accounts for roughly half of the student cohort (in Germany). However, this group soon becomes a minority when it comes to prestigious scholarships, and the transition to a research Ph.D. degree. These numbers, to my opinion, proves those people wrong who argue that discrimination by social group cannot happen, simply because the social provenience of a student is not known. We do loose these talents on the way to an academic career path, and exactly because the social group is not visible on first sight, the invisible barriers remain and the unconscious bias against this group is the most tricky to fight.

Let me focus for the rest of this post on one phenomenon: Looking at the numbers, the transition to doctoral studies seems to be the time of most significant dropout of students from non-academic background. Note that this is much earlier than for the group of female researchers, for which dropout numbers are highest after the completion of a Ph.D. One of the reasons brought forward to explain why few students from non-academic backgrounds go on to doctoral studies is that this group often faces financial worries during their undergraduate times, and may spend a lot of time per week on a job to pay their rent instead of studying. To my opinion, the reasons why we loose these talents go beyond economic factors, it is, in fact, a mixture of internal factors, such as a general lack of faith in one’s own competence and potential, lack of role models, and external factors.

I just want to point out here that already small changes in departmental and university policies can make a difference: In particular, as a department, we need to be more transparent about the transition between master and doctoral studies. Without going into too much detail, I mention two examplary factors: First, currently there is a lack of information on career paths, job perspectives and the benefits of a doctoral degree in mathematics (I am speaking for Germany here). Second, in many cases, the student still needs to personally ask a professor about the possibility to be a doctoral student under his supervision, and to discuss funding options. To do this “negotiations” successfully, the student has to have a set of informal knowledge and behavioral standards, which does disadvantage students from non-academic background.

Topic 2: Why we still need events and associations for women in mathematics

After getting asked the question a couple of times lately, I would like to explain quickly why Europe (and especially Germany) has associations for women in mathematics, and why it is important to have scientific workshops only for women. I will order by questions

Question 1: Why an organisation such as European Women in mathematics?

Omitting the concrete reasons and history of the foundation of European Women in mathematics, which you can find on the EWM webpage, first I would like to point out that in western Europe, it sounds not strange at all to have women's organisations: It is natural for groups of common interests and values to give themselves a legal form, e.g. form an association or foundation, because in this way it is easier to administer activities.

Question 2: What do women in mathematics organisations do and why should I care?

One part of the activities of womens' associations is to encourage girls to study mathematics and to pursue a career in mathematics research. It has nothing to do with convincing girls to study something different than they want, it is rather to encourage them to follow their own interest in mathematics despite adverse factors around them, such as being confronted by stereotypes in school or family. Another part of the activities of women's associations is to gather data and inform the public in general and the scientific community in particular on the situation of women in mathematics. One important point I want to mention here is that it is indeed proven by several studies that there exists a gender bias in STEM hiring, for example in this PNAS article. (One reason why such a study is not conducted specifically in mathematics is the smallness of the community, which makes studies of this type difficult to realize). It is not easy to talk about unconscious bias and gender bias: As mathematicians we believe in proofs, we are used to abstraction and might believe that we can make ourselves free of subjective opinions. Also, young female mathematicians might never have had the feeling to be discrimiated due to their gender. A quite comprehensive study in Germany reveals though that the percentage of women mathematicians experiencing discrimiation is getting higher and higher with every career step (notice that the persons interviewed were already professors, so we are talking about a higher and higher percentage of cases of discrimination even among women who "made it"). Last, women's associations and in Germany also universities are often organizing events especially for women or with women-only speakers. I will talk about this in the next question.

Question 3: why are "women in [your favorite research field in maths]"-events useful?

First of all, there is a lot of discussion on why there are so few women speakers on conferences. Every organizer for sure has a good reason when asked, and often this reason is that he/she does not know other female mathematicians in the field. With "women in ..." events we show that these women do exist, but many of them are oversighted by the organizers of regular conferences. This might not have been done out of bad will, not at all: To my experience, quite often a small team of organizers agrees first of all in speakers which they absolutely want to speak on their event, and then the money which they have to organize the event is already exhausted, and there is no space for experiments. Therefore, it is useful to have a platform where female mathematicians can speak about their work, so that they become more visible and they will be more often invited to "normal" conferences. Moreover, such women events providing a meeting place for like-minded people. Collecting opinions of participants, one major point seems that in these events there is often a positive and supporting spirit among participants and lecturers, see also this report and this article. Personally, women events were the only events where I ever got feedback on the mathematics of my talk or poster.

Some Links on the topic

Some info on the obstacles for women in mathematics