Athena SWAN 2013

The Athena SWAN event took place last Wednesday at the University of Leicester. This year’s theme was ‘Breaking through the Barriers of Bias’ with an insightful keynote speech by Professor Jennifer Saul, professor of Philosophy from the University of Sheffield.

Women, across all academic fields, are underrepresented in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The event aimed to discuss whether our hidden biases as individuals were unconsciously denying women opportunities with academia. The two main strands were concerning implicit biases and stereotypical threat.  In summary, implicit biases are biases which individuals have towards certain ‘groups’ of people who they have unknowingly stigmatised within societies. I use the word groups quite loosely her, as it refers to different socially constructed groups dependent on the context; gender and race can be included within these groups but other groups do not have to be as fixed or apparent. Our instinctive reactions to different members of these groups were what Professor Saul wanted to draw attention to, and the “Project Implicit” psychological test illustrates this point in practice – .

Stereotypical threat was an interesting theory of how an individual may unconsciously undermine their performance do well due to an awareness of belonging to a particular group thought of as being ‘less good’ at certain tasks. The individual may begin to ‘live up’ to their group’s labelled characteristics, subsequently leading to underperformance. An example was given of a study involving children at a young age; infant school girls were told that boys were better at maths before embarking on a test and their results were compared to control groups of girls. The test was repeated with different sets of children and, consistently, those who had been told the additional information did end up doing significantly worse than the others. It did make me wonder just how early we form our biases and which elements within the environment around us influence our biases more.    

Group discussions during the second half of the event brought through ideas of combating implicit bias as mentioned by Professor Saul (i.e. citing more women in papers, having a male/female balance on university students reading lists) aswell as opinions surrounding the effect of implicit bias on recruitment of academics, promotions, merit awards, pay and promotion. Comments surrounding maternity leave and the strain this causes on ‘keeping up to speed’ with developments in your academic department dominated the discussions on promotions and pay. We shall wait to see how the recent government amendments will have an effect on these views and what plays out in practice.

At the end of the session I did feel that there were a lot of problems highlighted but there were complex challenges of to making change happen. This is especially as many individuals (regardless of gender) may feel that they are immune to bias and will therefore not take the step to even recognise the effect of implicit bias in their decision-making, let alone positively work on ways to limit its hidden effect.