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Day after day, I return to work with the notion that academia is a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for intellectual growth. Like many people, I recognize the pattern that greater education, particularly college, is associated with liberal and tolerant attitudes. Academic institutions, themselves, are characterized (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective) as bastions of liberal ideals and practices, protected from the world “out there.”
I have been drinking the academic Kool-Aide since my freshman year of college, even once I realized it is spiked with a poison that could slowly kill me.
Academia Is A Warzone
Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative. The language is a bit extreme considering that many readers will think of death, blood, bombs, landmines, war rape, propaganda, and other gruesome aspects of war. I apologize, in advance, if the analogy is offensive.
But, I would also like to broaden our definition of war beyond the extreme, yet localized and ephemeral image that comes to mind. In my opinion, to the extent that marginalized groups face systemic discrimination and violence from birth to death, justified by propaganda, these groups represent the severely outnumbered side of a war. Considering the many ways in which institutional and interpersonal discrimination, poverty, and physical violence impact the health and well-being of marginalized groups, the death tolls of these wars are simply immeasurable.
Academia is not exempt from those wars. Colleges have excluded women, people of color, and people with disabilities/disabled people throughout history. Today, discrimination against these and other marginalized groups continues in the hiring and firing of staff, faculty, and administration; tenure and promotion; admissions; wages; and, other institutional practices. These groups are subject to harassment and violence at the extreme, to subtle, but more routine microaggressions.
And, yes, there are examples that fit the more extreme imagery of war: racial harassment; sexual violence, including sexual harassment; homophobic murder and harassment; transphobic assault; xenophobic assault and anti-Semitic harassment. While these extreme acts seem isolated and rare, they act as hate crimes — reminding other members of these communities of their inferior status and to live in constant fear. And, they occur along with less severe, but regularly occurring bias incidents: slurs, property damage, graffiti, verbal harassment, etc.
The Academic Fairytale Is Dangerous
Why has it taken over a decade for me to finally acknowledge academia is not a safe, inclusive, liberal place? When staff in the scholarship program I was in during the first half of college grumbled when I brought up LGBT issues, I should have caught on. Or, having “GAY” written on the whiteboard on my dorm door. Or, seeing graffiti about “fags” in the Chemistry building men’s bathrooms. Or, having several of the flyers my then-boyfriend and I put up to campaign for homecoming court vandalized with “fag” this, “pole-smoker” that. I guess I knew homophobia would be a challenge — one I came prepared to fight.
With the first racist microaggression I faced in graduate school — even before classes had officially begun — I started to catch on. But, six years later, now as a new tenure-track professor, I am finally declaring that enough is enough. When my partner told me he felt helpless to support me day after day, as I come home fuming about some microaggression I have faced, I teared up — well, because he named it: “oppression.” I know it, and regularly name it myself, but tend to stay just shy of fully acknowledging the reality of my experience as an oppressed person in academia, and the world in general. My fear is accepting “oppressed” leaves little hope, little room for change. But, the real danger is in denying how frequent and intense the hostility really is.
I study the health consequences of discrimination — so, I can tell you via research expertise (yeah, I’m saying “expert” — deal with it!) and personal experience that the hostility that marginalized students, staff, faculty, and administrators face is harmful. In actual “wars” in the traditional sense, it would be foolish to try to reason with one’s opponents, who are armed and out for blood. You protect yourself and fight back. But, in buying into the fairytale that academia is safe, humane, and socially-just, we fail to arm and protect ourselves. We repeatedly fail to psychologically prepare ourselves for battle, leaving us vulnerable to the full effect of every assault. When attacked, we spend the rest of the day, week, month, semester, year… however long… trying to make sense of how that could happen here, how could they do that. Unfortunately, this kind of rumination exacerbates the wear discrimination and violence has on our health and well-being.
Prepare For Battle
I hope that even readers who scoff at the allusion to war recognize that academic institutions are — for some — toxic, hostile, unsafe, and exclusive places. We do ourselves (particularly marginalized people) a disservice by thinking of acts of intolerance in academic spaces as isolated incidence, rather than manifestations of larger systems of oppression. And, we fail to make efforts to prepare ourselves.
So, here are some suggestions:
- Purge the idyllic, utopian vision of academia from your mind. No place on earth is free from prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Even if we disagree about how bad things are in academia, I ask that you at least acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
- Acknowledge the high, pervasive levels of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence within academic institutions. Since it may be easy to discount the extreme stories that capture the media’s attention as isolated incidents, look for a source that keeps a record of these events — and then inflate the numbers, as these incidence are severely unreported (and mishandled).
- Develop a plan-of-action to cope on a regular basis and for less frequent, but more extreme incidents. I keep learning the hard way that I cannot go to events and meetings on campus as though I am privileged, freed from exposure to bias. For new, unknown terrain, as well as spaces I already know to be hostile, I should 1) never go alone, nor sit alone, 2) have already established a team-effort to handle bias, and 3) have a prearranged time to debrief afterward. This could prevent being blind-sided by offensive comments or actions, being shut-down and thus unable to speak up or out, and having the rest of my day emotionally derailed. I should be meditating when I get home, but I at least try to journal to get toxic thoughts and emotions out so I can enjoy the evening with my partner.
- Seek out allies, and not just in the predictable places. I have found a great deal of support inside and outside of my department, including members of the university staff. I have more in common in experience and values with people of color, queer people, and other social justice-oriented people than sociologists, or even academics in general. Also, these outside perspectives can offer a new way of looking at a problem, or even entail “dirt” you would not get from insiders. Here, I emphasize quantity (i.e., have at least a few allies in different places) and quality (i.e., meaningful connections with trusted friends and colleagues).
- Consider ways to support others as they go to battle. Check the academic fairytale in your colleagues and students. I do not mean to force your perspective or to burst their bubbles; rather, do not let others deny or discount their own exposure to discrimination and harassment. Affirm others’ experiences are real and unjust — at least to the extent that they have the right to feel what they feel without explanation. If you can, offer other forms of support.
- Teach marginalized students how to survive in academia. A friend and colleague in student affairs has twice asked me what I am doing to teach my students survival skills. Wow. What a thought, right? I still do not have an answer; my focus has been on affirming marginalized students’ existence and experiences, but never at the level of teaching survival skills. As I develop syllabi for next semester, I will have to think about this, though it may take years to do so effectively. By design, the content of college-level and graduate-level education barely reflects the lives and perspectives of oppressed people. When reflected, we often get as far as highlighting that they are, indeed, oppressed, but fail to talk about how they are surviving, thriving, remaining resilient, and fighting back against oppressive structures. So, this is an ideal, at best, for now.
- If necessary, keep a personal record of acts of intolerance, particularly if there is a repeated source or perpetrator. If things become severe enough that you have to seek justice or protection through some institution or external party (e.g., EEO, human resources, the police, Office for Civil Rights, an attorney), it may be useful to have a record. And, you may need one or more witnesses to confirm your reports — maybe bring a colleague or friend along, or speak with someone else privately, hopefully to get them to start taking note in the future.
- Consider speaking openly about your experiences. This may help to affirm others’ experiences, and remind them that they are not alone in facing systemic, pervasive discrimination and harassment. It lets potential allies know that these kinds of events do occur, hopefully, encouraging them to take note and act. And, it can dismantle the cloak of silence; it can shift victims’ silent suffering to the public shaming of perpetrators of discrimination and violence.
- Fight back. At a minimum, be involved in your academic community to 1) be visible as a marginalized person, ensuring that your voice is heard and 2) create change.
- Stay healthy and well, in general. And, if a particular environment is too toxic to stay healthy and productive, you may need to seriously consider leaving, moving elsewhere, or taking temporary leave (if possible). As I have said elsewhere, try to avoid going to places that are obviously toxic or hostile. Unfortunately, self-care is a deeply political act for marginalized people within environments dead-set on destroying them.
What strategies have worked for you to survive in academia?
A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research. In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time. Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect. Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.
So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”
Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It
Um, hello? “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).
“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].
If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men. This is for two reasons. First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing. An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man. This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster! pick up your feet and run!” So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.
Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take. Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression. “Don’t do that — that’s girly!” “Man up.” “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.” Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.” I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.” So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.” Then, you will really be successful.
The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out
And, another thing! This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819). That is 182 biologists around the world. Yes, that is a small sample.
Let me dig in a little more. These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818). Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university. So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status). Tenure status was not considered. The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.
Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818). Order of authorship was ignored. Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored. Other journals were ignored.
To Be Fair
Let me stop there. My intention is not to trash the authors’ work. They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses. What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets. In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample. Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:
It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.
By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.
The take-home message: publish early, publish often.
To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research. However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.
A Personal Rant
The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic. That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities. The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place. This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].
This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs. Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter. I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people. The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline. Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men. Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position. But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.
But, I did start publishing “early.” I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth. Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years. That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.
What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place. Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students. One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program. That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.
If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues. But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places. For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia. Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.
The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].
Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring. Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background. This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable). And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality. For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market. (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)
But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together. Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings. We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms. It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors. And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.
The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone. And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem. The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership. So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.
Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School
Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender. In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings. Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color. But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day. The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time. One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings. And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.
And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty? One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color. These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity. However, you may be trading comfort for marketability. A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs. Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring
Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. But, problems remain. Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.
For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women). And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.
When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.
And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:
[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.
So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).
But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices. Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions. Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion
Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.
The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it. During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure. Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”
I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.
Racist And Sexist Climate
Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities. It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.
[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.
In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.” For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty. And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.
No Better, No Worse
I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities. Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy. Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.
Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities. Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation. While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them. But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities. Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.
I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion. This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out. For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates. There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs. I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down. My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.
Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in. Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond). These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down. And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.
The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.