SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
15 March 2018
Volume 19 Issue 3

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Overcoming Bias

Tamar Schlekat, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager, Jennifer Lynch, SETAC Publications Manager

Gender equalityWe talk a lot about bias in our science at SETAC. We ask authors to declare conflict of interest, and we require members of our governance bodies to identify theirs, too. We always announce financial contributions to our programming. Finally, we are vigilant about ensuring that governing bodies, committees and editorial boards reflect sectorial, geographic, career-level, disciplinary and gender balance. For behavioral bias, we have a code of ethics. We also have a code of conduct that opens with “avoid inappropriate and discriminatory actions” and clearly covers harassment in its many forms. However, we cannot pat ourselves on the back and move on. There is work to be done.

We need to better and more directly discuss and take responsibility for gender bias.

Over the past several months, as the #metoo movement gained momentum and advanced from only addressing sexual harassment to covering gender bias more broadly, there has been a lot of buzz on social media about harassment and gender bias in the scientific community. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination have legal definitions, and thus, most organizations have a zero-tolerance policy. Gender bias, on the other hand, is much more nebulous and its subtlety can cause confusion, anger and unintended missteps. The online resource wiseGEEK defines gender bias as “a preference or prejudice toward one gender over the other.” It adds that “bias can be conscious or unconscious, and it may manifest in many ways, both subtle and obvious.”

Gender bias affects career development directly and science indirectly. SETAC has been addressing this issue for years. SETAC ran a series of stories written by SETAC women scientists from around the world that covered the unique challenges they faced in their careers. Their vignettes were part of a fundraising effort for the SETAC Africa Women in Science Event. The Women in SETAC Luncheon, held at the SETAC North America annual meetings, has addressed gender bias topics many times over the years. SETAC Europe established a “Return to Science” grant to help researchers who have experienced temporary professional breaks. While this is open to all genders and for numerous reasons, it originated to help women who had taken family leave.

Women are keenly aware of bias, they experience it regularly. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and more can compound the issue. In this article, we seek only to point out nuanced and possibly unintentional gender-biased behaviors from our perspective. We ask that readers correct their own behavior and stop it in others when they see it. Doing so will go a long way to harnessing the full potential of both genders.

Anecdotes we have heard some SETAC women exchange about daily interactions with colleagues may sound like simple remarks, but they can inform about deeper, more systemic issues. After each story, shared look, email, Skype message, eye roll (literal or emoji), the frustration is clear. The offending colleague may mean well – oftentimes, the sexist faux pas is misguided, even if well intended. Perhaps he believes he is empowering female colleagues or students through his words and actions. Perhaps she does not think of herself as gender biased and doesn’t realize she is being far from supportive. The only way to bring the subtlety to light is to discuss it. Well, here goes.

Please read carefully and consider yourself and others in your lab or office. Don’t be “that person!”

  • The person who expects female colleagues to handle “domestic tasks” at work or in the field. Clearly, it is best to share domestic work.
  • The person who always asks a woman to take on administrative tasks (example take notes, arrange meetings) but seldom asks her to use equipment. It is only fair to share secretarial and technical duties equally.
  • The big, bulky person who stations himself in front of small women blocking their line of sight. While this is generally rude regardless of the genders involved, often it’s the male who is bigger, and when this causes physical intimidation in a female, it is a manifestation of gender bias. We implore everyone to be conscious of this behavior.
  • The person who interrupts a woman mid-sentence or credits her contribution to a male because he didn’t “hear” her. This could affect either gender, although numerous studies show that this type of behavior is disproportionately directed at women, who are more often interrupted than men at meetings. It is always advisable to listen carefully to all, pause and allow everyone the chance to express themselves.
  • The person who does not invite women to “guys-only” post-meeting socials, where they network and discuss work. This is a bit tricky and open to personal interpretation because some women have women only events as well. Currently, socially correct norms permit that marginalized groups are allowed leeway in having closed meetings for support. However, it may be best to take the example of the SETAC North America’s Women’s Luncheon that is open to both men and women and keep networking activities co-ed.
  • The person who assumes what a mother (expecting or otherwise) can or cannot do. We believe it may be best to simply ask her what she’s comfortable with rather than assume.
  • The person who refers to female colleagues as “the girls,” or some other dismissive or sophomoric term. Generally, if you are referring to a group of women who are over 18, the term “women” is appropriate. However, there is no need to point to their gender. We suggest, non-gendered term such as colleagues, lab-mates, fellow professors and staff.

There are many at SETAC who are self-aware and serve as allies to their female colleagues, mentor young researchers and comport themselves in a way that shows and promotes respect. Women in SETAC appreciate it. Small, gender-biased actions, of which we’ve listed a few, add up and have a detrimental effect on career advancement, job satisfaction and well-being. We are all influenced and shaped by our background, experiences and cultural beliefs, and being self-aware of our own biases is important.

Continue to speak up, speak out, and engage with your male and female colleagues.

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