What is Bias?

Contributed by Aara'L Yarber, Pennsylvania State University and UCAR Diversity Fellow

Bias is described in Webster's dictionary as "the prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair."

Social psychology scholars have conceptualized bias as either implicit or explicit.

Explicit bias refers to the prejudice beliefs or attitudes one has towards a person or group on a conscious level. Explicit attitudes are feeling and thoughts that one deliberately believes and can consciously document.

Implicit bias are prejudices, beliefs, or attitudes towards a person or group that are not within the margins of awareness, and are thus, unconscious. Implicit bias can be difficult to acknowledge and control because it exists beyond one's conscious thoughts or feelings. Implicit bias can undermine our explicit intentions or openly-held beliefs.

As explicit forms of discrimination have become less socially acceptable over time, implicit bias continues to negatively affect the success of diverse groups, particularly those that have been historically underrepresented in science. This bias can influence the way the empowered majority group thinks and behaves, which may manifest as "microaggressive" actions. Understanding implicit bias is critical because both positive and negative unconscious beliefs can lead to structural inequity [refer to equity page].

Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages based on identity or group membership. Microaggressions can be verbal (spoken and written), visual, behavioral, or environmental. Microaggressions may seem small in isolation, yet are harmful because they often occur with high frequency and from multiple sources, with negative effects on people's self-esteem and health.

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Bias in Science

  • A 2014 study revealed that 48% of Black and 47% of Latina women scientists were mistaken for administrative or custodial staff. Black women also revealed being openly confronted about racial stereotypes such as being asked if they had relatives in jail or on drugs. Asian women were confronted with the racial stereotype of being "foreign" and complimented on their ability to speak English.
  • A 2012 study revealed that both women and men science faculty from research-intensive universities were more likely to rate male applicants as more competent and hireable than identical female applicants for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants also chose a higher starting salary and more mentoring support for the male applicant. Names were randomly assigned to the application materials of each student, and yet, female and male faculty were equally as likely to exhibit gender bias against the female student.
  • A 2003 study found that fictitious résumés with randomly generated White-sounding names received 50 percent more interview callbacks than African American-sounding names.
  • A 2016 study revealed that fictitious women's résumés that signaled queer identity received about 30 percent fewer callbacks than their perceived straight counterparts.


How Does Implicit Bias Affect Self-Perception?

Imposter Syndrome

Wide generalizations of groups, including gender stereotypes, are often proven to be inaccurate for individuals, yet they can negatively affect self-perception. The imposter syndrome describes the constant feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, and fraudulence despite evidence of the contrary. Essentially, imposter syndrome describes the feeling of not being "good enough" for community membership.

Imposter syndrome is felt by people from every demographic, but people of color and white women struggle with this feeling the most. Imposter feelings have been shown to negatively intensify encounters of perceived discrimination, depression, and anxiety among racial minoritized students, especially African Americans. For underrepresented groups, imposter syndrome can further muddle an already challenging career path in which feelings of having to represent one's entire gender and/or race are already occurring. Overall, bias in STEM disciplines can drive feelings of inadequacy that can become difficult to overcome.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's social group. The term was first coined by Steele and Aronson in 1955 who showed in multiple experiments that Black freshmen and sophomore students underperformed on standardized tests in relation to white students when their race was emphasized at the beginning of the test. Contrarily, when race was not highlighted, Black students performed equivalently to or better than their white counterparts. The results indicate the decreased performance of one group due to the threat of their behavior being justified by racial stereotypes. Similarly, other studies have shown that women underperform on math and physics exams compared to men when gender was emphasized. However, when participants were told the test had never shown gender differences in the past, women performed equally to men, suggesting that stereotype threat may underlie gender differences in math performance.

Bias in the Geosciences

  • Female applicants are only half as likely as men to receive 'excellent' recommendation letters for postdoctoral positions in the Earth sciences, regardless of the gender of the recommender.
  • Women have a higher acceptance rate in American Geophysical Union (AGU) journals, but publish fewer articles. Additionally, women are asked to review AGU articles less frequently than men. This disparity is partially attributed to implicit bias.
  • Over the last two decades, there have been a greater proportion of female recipients of AGU service and education awards, but a lower rate of female recipients of AGU research awards. This gender disparity suggest that implicit bias in favor of male candidates still affects awardee selection.
  • When asked which factors might explain the disparity of women in the geosciences as seniority increases, nearly 20% of male survey respondents and only one woman stated the disparity was due to "women's views and choices." Male respondents overwhelmingly included comments such as "women are choosing to not be geoscientists" or choosing not to be academics, and women lack the self-esteem or the grit necessary to succeed in academia.
  • Across career stages, primary convener men, who control 72% of the abstract pool, allocate disproportionately fewer invited abstracts and presentations to women.
  • At a major observatory, proposals submitted by female researchers had a lower probability of being allocated telescope time.
    • Patat, F. 2016. Gender systematics in telescope time allocation at ESO. arXiv:1610.00920 [physics.soc-ph]

There is a bias in the geosciences towards studying gender bias and an outstanding lack of research regarding sexuality and racial biases, for example.

Sources for Geosciences

  1. Dutt et al. 2016. Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience. Nature Geoscience 9: 805-808.
  2. Lerback and Hanson. 2017. Journals invite too few women to referee. Nature 541: 455-457.
  3. Holmes et al. 2011. Does gender bias influence awards given by societies? Eos 92: 421-422.
  4. Holmes et al. 2008. Gender imbalance in US geoscience academia. Nature Geoscience 1: 148-148.
  5. Ford et al. 2018. Gender inequity in speaking opportunities at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Nature Communications 9: doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03809-5
  6. Canetto et al. 2012. Making sense of the atmospheric science gender gap: Do female and male graduate students have different career motives, goals, and challenges? Journal of Geoscience Education 60: 408-416.
  7. Patat, F. 2016. Gender systematics in telescope time allocation at ESO. arXiv:1610.00920 [physics.soc-ph]
  8. Schneider, B. and Holmes, M. 2020. Science behind Bias. In Addressing Gender Bias in Science & Technology (pp. 51-71). American Chemical Society.