We’re All Sexist, Rice Says

May 27, 2014

All of us have prejudices, because of the stereotypes we encounter and unconsciously absorb, according to Curt Rice, currently a research fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, who was recently named head of the Norwegian Committee on Gender Balance in Research. No matter how fair and equitable we try to be when making hiring decisions, for example, these prejudices influence our behavior, he said, speaking at an event hosted by CEU’s Department of Gender Studies and School of Public Policy. Fortunately, awareness of this phenomenon can help.

“As you see more and more stereotypes, you get more and more attitudes that you don’t even know you have,” Rice said. “This is called implicit bias. These are attitudes we hold that are not available through introspection. It’s frustrating and hard to believe. Like a blind spot.”

Since this is indeed hard to believe for people who consider themselves open-minded and egalitarian, Rice recommended an online test that anyone can take to measure their implicit bias, at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. The results are a “humbling experience,” Rice warned.


Curt Rice, fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel.

Many of us can think of anecdotal evidence to support implicit bias. Rice told the story of Norway’s creation of 13 “centers of excellence” to advance the country’s role in research. Rice attended an event to announce the leaders of these centers, since he was among those chosen, and soon realized that all 13 leaders were men. There were hundreds of children at the event because prizes for a school science competition were also being awarded, and these 13 men were presented as the promise of a successful future for Norwegian research – an embarrassing and unfortunate example for those hundreds of girls and boys, Rice said. Realizing their mistake, th

While anecdotes such as this can engage an audience, it’s important to rely on quality research when pushing for change, said Rice, who is based at the University of Tromso, the world’s northernmost university. For example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that when managers made hiring decisions for a job that required mathematical skills, the male candidates were twice as likely to be hired, even when the male and female candidates performed equally well on a skills test. When the managers were given background information showing that the female candidates had better past performance, they were still 1.5 times more likely to hire a man. The study is accessible here http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/05/1314788111.e Ministry of Education introduced a requirement that gender issues be addressed in research agendas – significantly, they did not require gender balance at the centers – and since then, the number of women has grown to match the nationwide percentage of tenured women professors.

In a separate study, researchers compiled a resume for a candidate to work in a research lab, and sent it to professors at research-intensive universities across the U.S. The resumes were identical, except that half were identified with the name John, and half Jennifer. Both male and female faculty showed a bias toward the male candidate in hiring, salary, and mentoring. John was more likely to be considered qualified. If Jennifer was hired, she was offered 80% of the salary John was offered. John was more likely to be offered mentoring. The study is accessible here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3478626/.


Curt Rice, fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, with Andrea Peto of CEU's Department of Gender Studies and Laszlo Kontler of CEU's Department of History and Pro-Rector for Hungarian and European Union Affairs. Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel.

“There was no difference between the male and female professors who did this,” Rice said. “So the solution is not simply putting more women on committees. We are biased, we are sexist. The idea is not to suppress it, but to become aware of it, acknowledge it.”

Rice went on to outline some practices that have garnered success, if not without criticism. The University of Delft, in the Netherlands, as part of efforts to achieve gender equality, advertised 10 faculty positions open only to women. The university was challenged in court, but it won the case, since they were able to prove that they had been unable to achieve gender equality through other means. While quotas are controversial, the common accusation that they cause a decline in quality of applicants is not only unsupported by research, the opposite appears to be true, Rice said.

“Research suggests that if you say things like, “if two candidates are equal, then we’ll hire the woman,” it has the effect of gathering more qualified women to apply,” he said. In Sweden, following the introduction of the practice of alternating men and women on lists of political party candidates, the competency of the party group increased, presumably because the less competent men got bumped off, Rice said. So equality, fairness and increased competence can be achieved via quotas in a way that cannot be achieved by a mere desire for these results on the part of professionals.

“We are not up to the task of objectivity,” Rice says. “So if you think the solution is to develop a culture of fairness, that’s a good idea... But it’s actually not good enough. Fairness follows from becoming aware of implicit bias and then intervening in processes where bias is at work.”

Major strides have been made, for example in the European Commission’s new research funding program, Horizon2020. The new program, the largest of its kind in the world at €80 billion, not only requires efforts toward gender balance in research teams applying for funding, it also requires that every research proposal include a gender dimension. For more information on the requirement, see https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/sites/horizon2020/files/FactSheet_Gender_2.pdf.

For more on Curt Rice’s work on gender equality, leadership and open access issues, visit his blog at www.curt-rice.com.