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As Cornell steps up its faculty hiring, seminars raise awareness about unconscious gender bias

The problem with unconscious gender bias is -- well -- it's not conscious. It affects our decision making, but we don't realize it, and it takes an outside point of view to call it to our attention. That was the theme of a Sept. 21 seminar at which Cornell faculty members were given a chance to see their hiring practices from such an outside perspective.

The National Science Foundation recently funded a Cornell center dedicated to recruiting more women to engineering and science faculty positions, called CU-ADVANCE. To advance its mission, the new center hosted two sessions on equity in faculty searches, aimed at Cornell department chairs and search committee representatives.

Attendees learned that biases in the search process are pressing issues as Cornell seeks to hire up to 600 new faculty members in the next decade while maintaining a diverse, world-class faculty.

The seminar featured a recorded performance by the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble (CITE). In a scenario depicting a fictional faculty search committee meeting, CITE actors portrayed five faculty members in the midst of a discussion that revealed the implicit, unconscious biases that can affect the search process.

The scene did not depict outright sexism, but subtler, more prevalent themes such as favoring recommendations from well-known colleagues, unequal weighing of qualifications for male versus female candidates, and encouraging young faculty on the committee to "not rock the boat."

After the performance, Dane Cruz and Martha Dewey, two of the CITE actors, answered questions from the audience while in character. Vivian Relta, CITE human resources specialist, facilitated the discussion and asked faculty members in attendance to share their reactions to the scene.

"The point of theater is to elicit response and feeling," she said.

The audience expressed frustration at characters who made assumptions about personality differences between male and female candidates and overlooked qualified female candidates in the first round of the search process. Several audience members stated that issues portrayed in the scene resonated with their personal experiences as search committee members.

"To help fix this, we need to focus on candidate scholarship and talk concretely about how to evaluate letters," said Relta in a summary of the discussion. "We need to focus on what's factual, and not on impression."

The problem is that in the search process, committee members are "faced with an overload of information," said Shelley Correll, associate professor of sociology and co-investigator on Cornell's ADVANCE grant. "We use various schemas to help us sort the information quickly and efficiently, and unfortunately, social science research has shown that gender is one of those schemas."

Correll offered concrete methods for ensuring that search committees stop using stereotypes as "cognitive shortcuts." For example, she said that ranking candidates should be avoided until late in the search process; candidates' work should be read, instead of reading only support materials; recommendations, resumes and statements should be analyzed critically, keeping in mind that recommenders may hold biases; and rankings and rejections made by individual committee members should be explained and justified to the full committee.

"We also need to ask, 'Is our selection criteria filtering out women and people of color? And if so, is that really the right criteria?'" Correll noted.

In the session's closing remarks, Cornell Deputy Provost David Harris encouraged department chairs to be aware of implicit biases, not only in faculty searches but in all decision making within their departments.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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