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Combating Sexism in Academia Starts with Combating Implicit Bias

We have to level the playing field by exposing and combating bias that limits women’s participation.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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News reports show the challenges women face in academia. Harassment, sexism and archaic cultural norms make gender diversity difficult to achieve, particularly in STEM fields. Many agree that to change things, we need more women in positions of power.

But arguments for or against the “pipeline” approach and calls for changes in “work/life” balance in higher education are distractions. If we want more women leading our universities and participating in academic science, technology, engineering and medical fields, we must combat implicit bias.  

What has been historically posited to explain gender inequality is the “pipeline problem.” As one progresses through the educational journey from high school to undergraduate admission to a full, tenured professor, there are leaks along the way.

The “solution” frequently proposed is to increase input at the spigot. That is, encouraging more female students at the source or attempting to fix the leaks along the way. 

Although efforts to increase women in STEM fields during the past several decades have resulted in improvements at the undergraduate and graduate levels in many fields, the persistently low numbers of female faculty members at the highest levels can contribute to an organizational culture of sexual harassment. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently issued a report that found more than 50 percent of female faculty members and 20 to 50 percent of female students surveyed acknowledged having experienced some form of harassment in academia.

Another school of thought suggests that work/life balance is to blame. Improving access to child care, greater job flexibility and improved technology to help reduce travel times might lead to increased female applicants. 

This wisdom is flawed. Workplace improvements such as these would be good for all employees, regardless of gender.

However, I fail to see how they might change the balance for women. The nursing profession, for example, frequently requires shift work during extended periods and at night. It is extraordinarily difficult with respect to child care, and the work/life balance for such jobs is challenging. Even with these barriers, more than 90 percent of nurses are women.

There are other, less obvious, examples. In 1970, women comprised less than 15 percent of accountants. Today, more than 60 percent of accountants are women. Why? It’s simple: Women have moved into accounting because they CAN. 

For example, prior to 1975, women were not legally allowed to open a line of credit without a man’s signature. Once legal barriers were removed, women began quietly taking over domestic finances. Now, more than 50 percent of household finances in the U.S. are managed by women. The fact that women are perceived to be competent at home managing finances is a bias buster in the workplace.

The No. 1 recommendation of the report is that academia must institute polices to create a “diverse, inclusive and respectful environment.” The most important step toward this end is to implement procedural changes to achieve equity in hiring and promotion. Not only must institutional changes be made, we must simultaneously guard against gender bias. Only then can faculty members, male and female, be made aware of the implicit stereotyping we’re all guilty of. 

More emphasis must be placed on the role of implicit bias. One’s attitudes to particular classes of people affect one’s understanding of an individual in an unconscious manner. It exists and is practiced by both men and women whether they are aware of it or not. 

We have to level the playing field by exposing and combating bias that limits women’s participation and drawing attention to any kind of biased behavior, including sexual harassment, that will deter the women of the future from entering STEM. Only then are we going to forge an organizational climate without discrimination or barriers. 

Laura Suggs is a professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman and Psychology Today

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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