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Cutting across the bias

By Cindy Weiss, CLAS Today

Developing a diverse faculty requires overcoming subtle biases in hiring and gathering data to analyze how your institution is responding to the challenge, says Michelle (Mikki) Hebl, professor of psychology at Rice University who leads a federally sponsored diversity effort there.

“Overt, blatant discrimination does appear to be on the decrease … but there are these more subtle types of discrimination,” she said in a lecture on Oct. 17 at Konover Auditorium sponsored by the co-chairs of the Provost’s Commission on Institutional Diversity, CLAS Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum and School of Social Work Dean Salome Raheim.

Subtle biases show up in application packets and in job interviews, said Hebl. Recommendation letters for women are often shorter and include more phrases that raise doubts about the applicant. Applicants with recognizably minority-sounding names get fewer calls for initial interviews, she said.

Biases are ubiquitous in the job interview and range from “benevolent” and condescending behavior to hostility, expressed verbally or nonverbally. They are hard to overcome, she acknowledged, because “We like ourselves and we like people like us.”

Hebl is a principal investigator on a rare ADVANCE grant to Rice from the National Science Foundation. ADVANCE grants are designed to recruit and retain women in science and engineering; UConn is currently preparing an application.

“You have resources on this campus that are very good,” Hebl said, citing the Industrial and Organizational division of the Department of Psychology in CLAS and psychology faculty here who study bias and how to make hiring selection fair.

The ADVANCE program “has helped transform our university in really positive ways,” said Hebl. Rice has created a national database for postdoctoral scholars and PhD students in science and engineering fields, providing access to names, references, and contact information for young scholars seeking jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The database addresses the objection that search committees can’t find suitably qualified minority candidates in STEM fields, she says.

“There’s a difference between not being any and not being many,” she says.

Gathering data during interviews and post-interviews is critical for institutions that want to improve their faculty diversity, Hebl said. With it, a university can identify and address the strengths and weaknesses that minority candidates perceive.

Her advice to UConn: Play to your strengths, identify your weaknesses, deal with the weaknesses, and have equitable searches.

“The interview is not the recruitment tool, it’s the selection tool,” she cautioned. She recommended that interviews be tightly focused on questions based on the job’s criteria and highly structured. Each candidate should hear the same questions, and search committee members should rely on notes, not impressions, about the candidate, she advised.

This is the standard in non-academic employment interviews, she said, and it should be the standard in academia.

It’s also important to have a contact person available for the job candidate to ask questions that would be awkward to ask of a search committee, such as where a spouse can find a job, or what the gay community is like in Storrs.

Hebl, who ran her 49th marathon in Hartford on Saturday before her talk (finishing in 4:20, a poor time for her, she lamented), had some non-academic reading in mind for her audience, too.

If you want to know about discrimination, read Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, she recommended, where social status depends on having a star on the Sneetchian belly, until everyone gets one, posing a new problem of how to discriminate.


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