Addressing biases and stereotypes: an interview with Naomi Ellemers
Interview by Francesca Arici
- Born inNetherlands
- Studied inNetherlands
- Lives inNetherlands
Naomi Ellemers is Professor of Social Psychology and Organisations and distinguished professor at Utrecht University.
During the last EWM Meeting in Graz she delivered a lecture on unconscious bias and modern forms of discrimination.
Can you briefly explain your research for a lay audience?
As a social psychologist, I examine how individual thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by situational circumstances. A key theory in my field, social identity theory, explains that individuals often consider themselves and each other in terms of the social groups they belong to. In this context, I address stereotypical expectations, for instance about the way men and women are (or should be to be a ‘good’ or ‘real’ man or woman). These group-based stereotypes influence the expectations and perceptions we have of others, but also impact on our own ambitions and life choices.
Group-based stereotypes influence the expectations and perceptions we have of others, but also impact on our own ambitions and life choices.
In my work I combine basic experimental research (e.g. looking at cardiovascular indicators of stress in particular social interactions or task performance situations, or examining brain activity indicating increased attention for particular pieces of information) with applied work examining selection decisions and career paths in organizations. The experimental research I do reveals how stereotypical expectations about members of particular groups can unwittingly drive the information people seek and remember and the impressions they form about the potential of specific individuals. In my applied work, together with universities and other organizations, I try to develop procedures and structures that help minimize the impact of such biased judgments on individual opportunities for education, employment and career progress.
How did you end up working in the field of social psychology? What was your path?
When I finished high school I didn’t know what to study. Actually, I had been taking dancing classes all through high school and wanted to be a dancer. The year I started going to university, my father and mother went to UC Berkeley for a sabbatical. I joined them to study there for a year. This allowed me to take classes in dancing, music and singing, in addition to trying out different academic subjects I was interested in, ranging from history and linguistics to sociology and psychology. This experience helped me decide what to do next. I realized that dancers do not have very long careers and that my dancing wasn’t good enough to become a professional dancer. I was intrigued by my psychology classes which made me realize that you can use systematic research designs and measure physiological mechanisms people are not aware of to gain a better understanding of human behavior. After that year when I went back to my home country I decided to study psychology. But I didn’t want to become a therapist, and I wasn’t interested in child development, so I opted to specialize in social psychology to examine the mechanisms underlying normal adult human behavior.
In your country, the Netherlands, there seems to be a serious structural problem with women in academia. What are, in your opinion, the reasons behind this, and what can be done to improve the situation?
The problems relating to gender inequality in the Netherlands are not very different from the problems that emerge elsewhere, and comparative studies suggest that the general mechanisms are the same. The main difference is that in the Netherlands the representation of women at higher career levels is even less than in other countries and progress seems to be slower, especially in academia. Many people find this remarkable because they think of the Netherlands as a modern and progressive country.
In the Netherlands the representation of women at higher career levels is even less than in other countries and progress seems to be slower, especially in academia. Many people find this remarkable because they think of the Netherlands as a modern and progressive country.
It is not so easy to identify a single reason for this state of affairs. Sociologists generally point to two historic developments that seem relevant. First, the national government was dominated by Christian parties for many years. They developed a legislation that would support family life and discourage women from doing paid work. The Netherlands was very late to abolish laws that would prevent women from owning property, or losing their job as soon as they got married. Second, the economic prosperity in the Netherlands allowed many families to adopt the male breadwinner – female homemaker model, as one income often was enough to support the whole family – also due to tax benefits for families induced by the Christian government. All kinds of practical arrangements reflected this standard family situation until quite recently: shops would not be open after 6 PM, school children would be sent home for lunch every day between 12 and 2 PM, and would have a free afternoon on Wednesday, and no preschool or after school childcare would be available. This made it very difficult if not impossible for women to work at a full-time job. Indeed, even today, the Netherlands has the highest level of part-time workers in the world, and part-time employment is generally seen as a legitimate reason for lack of career advancement.
An additional psychological explanation that might help account for the current slow progress towards equal representation of women at work is contained in the image of the Netherlands as a modern and progressive country. The general assumption that everyone receives the same opportunities and has equal rights easily blinds people to the implicit barriers still faced by women today, and makes it difficult to change existing practices – even if they are biased.
Is there any difference btw the problems women face and the problems faced by other minorities? After all, women make up 50% of the population.
Perhaps the content of the stereotypes women face differs from the stereotypes confronted by other underrepresented groups such as religious minorities, or LGBT workers. Yet, the stories we hear and the data we collect reveal that these different groups often face very similar problems. These relate to general lack of faith in their competence, potential or motivation, lack of understanding for personal circumstances that affect their preferred work conditions and career paths, lack of available mentors and role models, and lack of appreciation for alternative views and abilities they might bring to the work floor.
Can you quantify how long it will take to reach gender equality in academia?
We have a national network of female professors that monitors annual progress towards gender equality in academia with a number of indicators. Projecting current developments into the future, their best estimate is that gender equality (in terms of male-female representation at the full professor level) will not be achieved before 2048 – so another 20 years from now.
In your talk, you discussed gender bias in evaluations and hiring processes. Any advice for people in hiring committees? How can one actively work towards improving diversity? Is being aware of one’s own biases enough?
Many studies show how difficult it is to prevent that implicit biases color your judgment. Being aware of one’s biases or taking an ‘anti-bias’ training is not enough. In fact, oftentimes the presence of measures aiming to prevent bias (e.g. providing anti-bias training, or appointing a diversity officer) can mask existing problems or can even prevent fair treatment. The fact that something has been done to prevent bias increases trust in the quality of the decision-making procedures, makes people less vigilant in critically considering their own judgments, and paradoxically has been found to increase unequal treatment.
The best way to prevent that the biases we all have influence the personnel decisions we make, is to acknowledge that we are all biased, to assume that we can’t be trusted to process relevant information fully or objectively, and to keep monitoring aggregate outcomes of our decisions to guard against the provision of unequal advancement opportunities. It helps if an equal representation is part of the core mission and strategy of the university, and supported by top leadership and has to be accounted for by team leaders. Only by mainstreaming the achievement of these goals (instead of relegating them to an HR officer with no real budgetary or decision power) is it possible to make the necessary changes to reach them.
The worst way to address implicit bias is to reassure ourselves that stereotypes are a thing of the past, to assume that we are able to judge people fairly once we agree we shouldn’t be biased, and to trust that people will notice and call out unfair treatment when it occurs.
The substantial increase of women at these highest academic levels makes them more visible as mentors and role models for younger women, and diversifies the organizational climate to be more open to scholars who are ‘different’ in some way.
Is there any example of good-practice that comes to your mind, and which you think could be of inspiration for our readers?
In the Netherlands, last year it was exactly 100 years ago that the first female full professor was appointed at a Dutch University (Johanna Westerdijk). On this occasion, the Ministry of Education together with the University boards supported the appointment of 100 additional female professors. Likewise, the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) decided to have an extra round of membership selections for women only. When these measures were announced, many people were skeptical. They were concerned that lower quality appointments would be made just to have more women, and argued that if there were sufficient qualified female candidates, they should come through in the regular rounds of appointments and selections. Once the selection procedures were completed it was clear that many excellent candidates were put forth, that they met the highest standards, and that their appointments could be fully supported based on their scholarly merit. The only thing that had been missing so far was the motivation to find them! The substantial increase of women at these highest academic levels makes them more visible as mentors and role models for younger women, and diversifies the organizational climate to be more open to scholars who are ‘different’ in some way.
Bibliometrics and citations indices are used to assess the quality of a researcher, with consequences on career, salary, and status: are they gender biased and how? Any suggestion to change or improve them, or how to use such indices while being aware of possible pitfalls?
We tend to think publication, impact, and citation records are ‘objective’ indicators of quality, but many studies show that different kinds of biases play a role here as well.
We tend to think publication, impact, and citation records are ‘objective’ indicators of quality, but many studies show that different kinds of biases play a role here as well. Some studies have documented ‘coercive authorship’, noting that female scholars are more often put under pressure to add the name of a co-author to their work, even if the person in question didn’t really make a contribution. Other studies show that women receive less credit for their contribution to a co-authored study than men do. Yet other studies reveal that the same manuscript, invention, or design is evaluated less favorably when the author is identified by a female rather than a male name – hence it is also less likely to be cited. Further, women are less often invited as speakers at conferences, making it more difficult for their work to get noticed and referenced by other research groups. Women are less likely to receive grant support for their research, even if there is no difference in the rated quality of their research proposals, and women receive less career advancement opportunities, honors, and pay, also when their objective record of performance and achievement is the same as their male colleagues.
One way of combating these mechanisms, is by being more mindful that ‘objective’ performance criteria may also be biased in some way, to recognize that we are unable to assess actual merit and achievement even when ‘objective’ criteria are available, and to assume there is no a priori reason that women as a group are less able or deserving of credit than men as a group. Here too, systematically monitoring equitable representation at aggregate levels, can help correct for the impact of implicit bias.