Tackling gender bias in academia

Find out more about the implicit bias project

Our research on implicit bias has influenced practices and policies worldwide, to reduce the under-representation of women in philosophy.

Professor Jennifer Saul, from our Department of Philosophy, has drawn on research from social psychology to argue that implicit bias and stereotype threat are likely to play a key role in the under-representation of women in philosophy.

Her work has led to widespread changes to journal refereeing procedures, conference organisation, and admissions and hiring procedures in philosophy departments.

She said: “As an academic discipline, philosophy is overwhelmingly male, with a gender ratio that more closely resembles the physical sciences than the humanities.” 

Implicit biases

Implicit biases are unconscious associations that can affect the way that we evaluate and interact with people. Stereotype threat is a phenomenon that may lead members of groups that are negatively stigmatised (on a certain sort of endeavour) to under-perform at or avoid that endeavour.

Professor Saul said: “Implicit biases can, for example, lead assessors to rate a CV as less impressive if it has a woman’s rather than a man’s name at the top of it. Stereotype threat can cause a woman to under perform in high-stakes situations when she is one of very few women in the room.”

Her paper on this topic, along with her co-authored report for the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy UK, argue that implicit bias and stereotype threat are likely to play a role in perpetuating the under-representation of women in philosophy.

Improving the situation for women in philosophy

Professor Saul’s research has also suggested various strategies that could be used to improve the situation for women in philosophy, in the face of the problems of implicit bias and stereotype threat. She co-authored a set of guidelines based on this research that have been adopted by the British Philosophical Association.

Many philosophy departments have already changed their policies and practices, based on these guidelines, including those at the universities of Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and the London School of Economics. The British Society of Aesthetics, the British Society of Philosophy Science and the Journal of Applied Philosophy also now use the guidelines.

“The guidelines encourage philosophy departments to anonymise part of their hiring process and breakdown stereotypical associations of philosophy with maleness, striving for diversity in seminar speakers, syllabi and course reading lists,” said Professor Saul.

Universities overseas are also making changes based on Professor Saul’s research. Rutgers University’s philosophy department, in the United States, has launched a mentoring scheme and added online resources about implicit bias and stereotype threat.

At the University of California, Professor Saul’s work has influenced the pedagogical training of PhD students. In Canada, at Trent University, the philosophy department has adopted policies aimed at overcoming implicit bias and stereotype threat.

Professor Saul said: “Unfortunately the world we live in is shaped by prejudices in many damaging ways. This is why it is so important to understand how these biases can shape our thinking even when we are not aware of them.”