May 16, 2014 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Last month, I discussed bias in academia and more specifically in the workplace. Just to recap, there are several studies that show bias in peer review and bias or favoritism in the workplace. Much of the bias may be unconscious or what is considered “hidden bias” and is not shown overtly. In this month’s blog, I propose three steps to reduce bias in the workplace.

The solutions proposed here are geared towards academic work environments at the departmental level in one of the three settings: 1) professors or research scientists running a lab or a research group who supervise research assistants, students, fellows and staff; 2) department directors/heads; and 3) members and chairs of committees charged with the selection of candidates for awards, prizes, and positions. While I am not applying these steps to the peer review of grants or publications, some of the points may be helpful to reduce bias in peer review processes.

As everyone has biases, the first step is to recognize the biases you may have based on gender, race, age, body weight, religion and others and to personally acknowledge them. In the example I discussed above with potential racial bias in NIH grant reviews, one of the follow-up commentary articles suggested recognizing biases based on an online assessment tool developed by Project Implicit. Researchers in Project Implicit have developed tests to measure individual preferences based on gender, different races, weight, age, sexual orientation, skin tones, disabilities and religion. While explaining the psychology behind the creation of these tests is beyond the scope of this blog, these tests are likely to be quite helpful for individuals to recognize their own biases. Such self-assessment may be the first step to eliminating biases in the workplace.

While recognizing one’s biases is a first step, a second would be to ensure that opportunities and other academic rewards provided to staff and students are based on objective performance standards and that equal opportunity is provided to all. So when hiring, providing an award or an opportunity to staff or students, we should base this selection on clear performance measures such as research performance (e.g., publications, grants, awards), quality of teaching (e.g., based on student course evaluations), and the level of community and other service (e.g., public lectures, peer reviews). And after developing such metrics, the idea is to stick with them. I am not sure how valuable “trusting your gut” would be as my belief is that this is how bias can creep in.

Lastly, the process of providing opportunity to academic staff and students should be made open and transparent to the extent possible. If time and funds permit, make decisions as a committee instead of as individuals and include third party people or outsiders of the department/institute who can share different perspectives and may be unfamiliar with departmental norms and politics.

Everyone wants to be treated fairly and academic departments are not immune to bias when compared to other employment sectors. Recognizing the potential for bias in the academic setting and attempting to eliminate it will help ensure that the rewards of academia are fairly distributed.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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