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Blindspot Blog #1: Gender Mindbugs in Academia

Blindspot Blog #1: Gender Mindbugs in Academia

“Let’s begin with the uncontroversial observation that in most societies, men are more likely to be famous than women.” (Banaji and Greenwald, 2013, p.101)  This passage from the book Blindspot sparked in me (perhaps due to my own hidden bias) the thought to begin this post by thinking about the “uncontroversial” observation that in most societies men are also more likely to be seen as intellectual and hold academic positions (see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/22/study-finds-gains-faculty-diversity-not-tenure-track for recent data and trends in academic hiring).  Although I could connect to the book in a number of ways, the issue of gender stereotypes and their automatic associations are what I would like to reflect a bit on here.

The presence of a male = academic association, or “mindbug” to use the terminology of the book, is highlighted for me often when I hear students referring to the author of journal articles with the pronoun “he” instead of “she,” despite the fact that the lead author is a woman.  I find this to be troubling because, although I don’t know the source in each case – perhaps students just don’t look at the authors’ names at all and would make the adjustment to the feminine pronoun where applicable if they did – it serves as a reinforcer that this bias to view academic work as male is still quite prevalent.  And, I have to admit that I find this mistake particularly troubling when observed in female students – in part because of what it seems to suggest about these students’ own mindbugs (more on this later) and in part because I find these kinds of assumptions so problematic when I notice them in myself (a sentiment that is highlighted multiple times by the book’s authors as well).  For example, I have to admit unhappily that in the past I have found myself surprised – indicating a violation of my expectation – to learn that a particularly noteworthy study was done by a lead researcher with a woman’s name.

Many years ago while an undergraduate, I began to explicitly look at the authors of articles when I didn’t recognize the last name to try to determine whether the lead author was a woman (aware as I am that such simple distinctions between man and woman leaves no space for alternative gender identifications – a topic for perhaps another blog).  I started this practice as a way to work on eliminating the man = academic mindbug that I found personally troubling – by slowing myself down to collect the evidence about who the author was, I could (hopefully) actively avoid operating on the automatic level and by default assuming the paper was written by a man. Although this practice hasn’t worked perfectly, and I still sometimes find myself defaulting to the impression that an academic author is male, I believe that the tendency has lessened in myself.  In fact, research on reducing the impact of implicit bias has suggested that slowing down can help (https://psmag.com/social-justice/meditation-mindfulness-short-circuits-reflexive-racial-bias-95713#.lk4rr8ybb).

Returning to the reason for why this mistake bothers me more among women in my class, I believe that this is the case because it speaks to the issue discussed in the book about “self-undermining” mindbugs.  That is, when we internalize the disadvantage associated with our demographic category – in this case that women are less academically accomplished compared to men. I perceive these authorship mistakes as a bias in women college students that is indicative of their own internalization of the man = academic stereotype.  And, as the book discusses, while our explicitly endorsed attitude – for example, a college woman’s belief that she is just as able to accomplish academic success as a man – may be inconsistent with the implicit one, there is evidence that these implicit attitudes matter for behavior as outlined in the book. And, it suggests that both male and female students might be imagining the male researcher as the default – similar to the issue of the “White default” in fiction (see for example, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/white-until-proven-black-imagining-race-in-hunger-games and https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/unmaking-white-default/).

The male = science and gender-career IAT discussed in the book reminded me of a study that I discuss in some of my courses.  Researchers sent an identical application packet to science faculty at “research-intensive” universities for the position of lab manager with either the name of John or Jennifer.  What they found was that both male and female faculty members rated John as more competent, hirable and worthy of mentorship than Jennifer and proposed a higher starting salary for him (Moss-Racusin et al., 2013; https://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474). The article’s authors state that they “are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a desire to impede the progress of women in science” rather they are implicit and thus the findings fit nicely with the tenant of the book that mindbugs can have consequences even when they are at odds with explicit beliefs (p. 16474).  Furthermore, it demonstrates the finding discussed multiple times in the book that even members of the disadvantaged groups (in this case the female faculty) often display self-undermining bias.

In my own career, I have experienced the influence of the man = academic association directly in others’ evaluation of me as I am sure many others have.  For brevity, I will just relate one instance here, which describes a situation that has actually occurred twice in my career. A colleague needed to take a leave for medical reasons and thus I was going to fill in by taking over one of his courses.  The topic of covering the course was being discussed in one of my current classes because a student was in both my class and the one I would be taking over. In front of the whole class he asked me incredulously, “But, how are you going to do that?” – “that” being teach the male professor’s course.  A more positive read of the situation would be that the student was just wondering how someone would be able to accomplish the difficult task of taking over a course mid-semester while still handling all of their own work but based on his tone I am reasonably confident that this was not what the question entailed.  Rather, it is likely that his mindbug, and perhaps explicit attitude, led him to question how a woman would be able to accomplish the task of man (keeping in mind that I was currently teaching a course in psychology and would be stepping in to, that’s right, teach a course in psychology).  I believe I responded politely with, “Because I’m good at my job,” but perhaps this is hindsight and self-enhancement bias at work altering memory.  In any event, as I indicated earlier, this was actually not the first time that a student had questioned my ability to teach a course that was formerly taught by a male professor.  

As described in the book, although it is unlikely that we will be able to eliminate these mindbugs, the authors espouse a hope that researchers will continue to find ways to “outsmart” them. They mention the oft-cited example of blind auditions for the symphony.  My strategy with articles is the opposite – to unblind myself by explicitly making note of who wrote the paper and encouraging my students to do the same.

blindspot book cover

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