Affirmative Action doesn't merely exist to overcome historical discrimination. Cognitive bias exists in every day life. We need to address it to increase representation of women and minorities in science. Continue reading...
Why are women under-represented in fields like science, technology, engineering and math? For many decades women were legally excluded from such jobs. Today, such blatant discrimination no longer exists, yet even so women still earn fewer than 20% of the degrees in engineering and physics. In the past, many people claimed this was because women simply aren't mentally tough enough to succeed in such challenging work. But reams of research has now shown (
; that a significant part of the problem is stereotypical attitudes on the part of male superiors and peers. Even if they don’t mean to be dismissive, men often don’t take women seriously, and they fail to offer women the social support and mentorship that they routinely extend to other men. This is called unconscious bias. Social scientific research on this has shown conclusively that women do face it and it affects their willingness to go into these fields and perhaps even their job performance.

As a nation, we have decreed this crisis: we need women scientists, engineers, and technology entrepreneurs. So instead of continuing to blame women for failing to overcome the subtle slights and prejudices that hamper their progress in these fields, we have decided to do whatever is necessary to make those fields and occupations more welcoming to women. The United States National Science Foundation has granted millions of dollars in the “ADVANCE” program for gender transformation projects on American university campuses. Private companies, too, realizing that they need diverse workplaces have hired consultants to help them overcome gender discrimination and make sure that women feel comfortable in the workplace.

The African American student groups who are demanding change at campuses across the country are asking that a similar recognition be given to the unconscious bias that continues to hinder their success even now that older exclusionary laws and practices have been repealed. The discrimination they are protesting is much more subtle than that of the past, and therefore harder for many whites to recognize. But research shows that a lack of interested mentors, slights from other students who believe they were admitted for diversity and not for merit exact a long-term toll. What they call micro-aggressions are a classic case of unconscious bias experienced within their university homes. We see evidence of this in how less often they graduate, and when they do, how much longer- on average- it takes them to do so. We know racial bias happens. This project has told us that much and that most of us are susceptible to it, whether we know it or not.

Now that students are exposing this widespread problem with protests across the country, have we admitted it is a serious problem? Has the federal government declared a crisis and created grants to make change? Are individual colleges and universities taking notice before the president’s office is occupied? No. Instead of taking seriously the issues brought forth in these protests, I read a lot of criticism directed towards these young people as too sensitive, as whiny, as wimps. Why do universities seem to pay so much more serious attention to bias against women in science than against African Americans who simply want to have an unquestioned place at the table?

The answer is no doubt complex, but surely part of the story is that many of the women who want equality in science, technology and engineering jobs are the wives, daughters, aunts, and cousins of the men who run the show. I’ll never forget one provost I met whose daughter had experienced gender discrimination in a scientific workplace and he became an early and passionate ally in advancing women in STEM fields on campus. Perhaps the intimate relationships between women who face discrimination and the men at the top can help explain why we have national policies and federal dollars to end sexism against women in science, but universities are still fighting the courts to allow affirmative action to exist to overcome racial bias in college admission.

If cognitive bias can keep women out of science, it can keep African American students from being admitted to college, feeling they belong on their campuses and from performing at the top of their game. Let’s hope the Supreme Court continues to allow campuses to consider race in admissions. But that’s just a start. To really diversify our campuses, we need to keep the pledges to student activists to also consider the existence of racial bias in student retention and to seek out faculty of color in hiring practices. As long as sexism and racism still matter in society at large, they must be acknowledged on university campuses. In our increasingly diverse society, we need to train a new generation of diverse leaders.