Implicit Bias

Nikita Lalwani and Sam Winter-Levy

In February, GenderAvenger began tracking how often current affairs programmes on US TV asked women to analyse the presidential election. In the week beginning 29 February, 48 male analysts and 46 women appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360º, but no other show managed a ratio better than 2:1. On CNN’s New Day there were 84 men and 34 women; on Fox & Friends there were 51 men and eight women; on The Kelly File, also on Fox, there were 24 men and four women; and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe there were 138 men and only 29 women.

On 5 February, Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, saw that Vox had asked six political scientists for their take on Bernie Sanders. All six were white men. ‘I’ve been guilty of this, too, in putting together panels,’ she told us. ‘It’s hard to think of women in political science.’ That evening she put together an online database of women political scientists called Women Also Know Stuff. ‘I was literally feeding my baby, and I whipped it together in twenty minutes on WordPress,’ she said. By 1 March, almost 20,000 people, including journalists at the BBC and NPR, had visited the site, which lists nearly 1000 scholars.

Klar hopes that journalists and editors will use Women Also Know Stuff to reach out to women experts. But the site also responds to a broader visibility problem in political science: women are underrepresented in academic conferences, on panels, in political science journals and in academic citations. In 2014, six leading Washington thinktanks held, between them, 246 discussions on the Middle East, of which 159 (65 per cent) had no women on stage. In 2015, Congress conducted at least 45 hearings on Iran. Of the 140 experts called to give testimony, 134 were men.

This is partly a pipeline problem: men and women receive PhDs in political science in roughly equal numbers, but women are more likely to drop out before they get tenure (fewer than 30 per cent of faculty positions are held by women). There are things political science departments could do to fix this imbalance, such as offering more generous maternity leave, and making positive efforts to recruit women.

But the voices of women already in the field are not being heard either. When conferences or panels are put together by men, as they often are, the organisers tend to reach out to other men first. ‘We tend to feel more comfortable with people who look like us and talk like us, and we do so without thinking,’ said Kathleen McNamara, a political scientist at Georgetown.

A closely related problem is implicit bias: the unconscious prejudices that make people more likely to associate men with expertise. According to a recent study by Heather Sarsons, an economist at Harvard, every paper a man writes makes him more likely to get tenure, whether or not he writes alone; when a woman writes with a man, her tenure prospects don’t improve at all. And journalists often list male authors first when referring to academic papers, even when the primary author is a woman.

In December, a local reporter contacted the University of Alabama, hoping to speak to a political scientist about the role of gender in the 2016 presidential campaign. ‘If you go to my department’s website, I’m the first one listed in alphabetical order,’ Nichole Bauer said. ‘But the reporter went and found one of my male colleagues, even though he does no work on gender at all. The reporter had to be convinced multiple times by my male colleague that I was, in fact, the appropriate person to contact.’

In 2013, a study in International Organization found that papers written by women are cited less than papers by men. Between 1980 and 2006, articles by men were cited 4.8 times more often, on average, than those by women. There’s a significant gap even after controlling for such variables as subject matter, year and place of publication, institutional affiliation and tenure status. The citation gap puts women at a substantial disadvantage, as universities often rely on citation counts to determine whom to hire and promote. Women also promote themselves less than men. Another recent study found that 31 per cent of male scholars, across a wide variety of disciplines, cite themselves, compared to only 21 per cent of women.

One way to reduce the gap is simply to raise awareness. David Lake, who teaches at UC San Diego, came across Women Also Know Stuff when he was working on the penultimate draft of a paper on ethnic conflict. ‘I just happily spent the afternoon going through your expert lists,’ he wrote to Klar. By the end of the afternoon, his bibliography had gone from two-thirds male to fifty-fifty.

Gina Glantz, the political strategist who founded GenderAvenger, has taken a more aggressive tack, publicly shaming organisations that put together conferences or events with too few women. The tumblr ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel!’ has a similar strategy. In 2014, GenderAvenger included the Politico50, a ‘list of the thinkers, doers, and dreamers who really matter in this age of gridlock and dysfunction’, in its Hall of Shame for including only 21 women alongside 60 men (26 per cent). The next year, women made up 39 per cent of the list. ‘I have yet to see politeness work on its own,’ Glantz said. ‘Public image is what organisations and individuals care about. Unfortunately, shaming appears to be the best route to acknowledgment and change.’ Glantz also showcases organisations that have made progress in a GenderAvenger Hall of Fame.

Women Also Know Stuff is, as it says, only a first step. ‘Part of what we’re arguing is that there’s implicit bias against women,’ said Nadia Brown, a political scientist at Purdue, and one of two black women on the website’s editorial board. ‘The same thing could be said of people of colour, of people of different religions, of people of different sexualities. My role on the board is to constantly remind my colleagues of this fact.’


  • 8 April 2016 at 12:02pm
    LL says:
    The LRB would do well to remember that Women Also Know Stuff. Just a quick look through any issue demonstrates the implicit bias that is the subject of this post. Have we no talented female writers other than Hilary Mantel and Jacqueline Rose? Must a supposedly progressive literary periodical consistently and depressingly rely on a tiny cluster of male contributors?

  • 9 April 2016 at 4:35pm
    gringo_gus says:
    Un-US-Americans know stuff too. What is tenure?

  • 14 April 2016 at 10:48am
    David Ganz says:
    The presumption in this article that US universities award tenure is belied by the statistics, most jobs, whether held by men, women or transgender persons, are short term. The state of Wisconsin is doing its best to abolish tenure, and every state legislature now spends more on prisons than on state universities. Nor is the private sector any better: Princeton famously believes that to have taught there is such an honor that no faculty member really deserves tenure, and every would be Princeton now parrots that line, in order to save money and sustain the power structure of Department chairs and Deans. If the situation in Political Science is different I shall be delighted: in my experience most tenured faculty have no conception of the conditions under which postdoctoral students in 2016 now have to work. In the words of a prominent Harvard literature professor to his colleagues "why do you think you are entitled to take on a graduate student for 3 years, given what awaits that student?"