Athena Swan

Athena Swan promotes and supports the careers of women in Science, Engineering and Technology (STEM), and aims to address gender inequalities and imbalance in these disciplines and, in particular, the under-representation of women in senior roles.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The unconscious biases of applications

So, a student needs a letter of recommendation for his postgraduate course, or you want to support your colleague in her bid for promotion to professor. You've written plenty of these before, your student/colleague is clearly the best person for the job - easy, right? Not so fast. Because the language we use often carries meanings beyond the literal, and many of these sneakily send completely the wrong message - which can stick in the recipient's mind long after they've moved on to the publication list or other judging criteria. Athene Donald, in her latest blog post, cites the word 'feisty' as a particularly pernicious example, but many describe traits we actually want in our colleagues/representing our award - reliable, organised, hard working, trustworthy (see a list of common culprits here). Rightly or wrongly, words carry implicit cultural associations, with the dual effect of putting off potential female candidates (from male-worded solicitations) or lowering your star candidate's standing in the eyes of the review committee (using female-worded letters of support).
So the next time you want to attract the best candidates, or promote your star student, think about the messages you don't know you're sending - and be aware of those referees have used if you're sitting on a committee. Not sure where to start? How about putting that letter into this Gender Bias Calculator - and then do something about it!

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