Shades of Bias

Study of British students points to potential for bias in academic hiring.

January 10, 2013

A psychological study has found strong evidence of ethnic discrimination in a simulated short-listing decision for an academic post.

White participants were much more likely to put forward white candidates, while nonwhite participants favored nonwhite applicants, albeit to a lesser extent. The findings are "extraordinary and very worrying," according to Geoffrey Beattie, former head of psychology at the University of Manchester, who led the research.

Beattie showed 96 participants, ­ most of them university students in Britain, four equally strong C.V.s with attached photos, two of nonwhite and two of white individuals. Participants were then asked to shortlist two candidates for a post as a lecturer in health psychology.

If the participants had been color-blind, 25 percent would have selected two non-white candidates, 25 percent would have chosen two white candidates, and half would have opted for one of each. However, more than 60 percent of white participants shortlisted two white candidates, and just 6.3 percent put forward two nonwhite candidates. Nonwhite participants also betrayed bias, although less strongly: only 4.2 percent selected two white candidates, while more than 25 percent chose two nonwhite candidates.

Based on the findings, ethnic minority academics "are going to find it tougher" to secure posts, Beattie said.

The study also tracked which part of a candidate's C.V. a participant studied when making a judgment. Ethnicity affected how long participants spent looking at the strong and weak parts of a C.V., it found.

"Our implicit (and unconscious) attitude to people from different ethnic backgrounds seems to direct our unconscious eye movements when we consider their C.V.s," Beattie writes in Our Racist Heart? An Exploration of Unconscious Prejudice in Everyday Life, the book in which the study features.

When Beattie repeated the experiment for an administrator post, he found that ethnicity had "no significant effect," perhaps, he suggested, because academic positions are deemed higher-status.

In light of the findings, selection panels should "never use gut instincts" because first impressions will be "biased," Beattie said. To help counter bias, he suggested that short-listing panels should not see candidates' names and should be more ethnically diverse.

Beattie, a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is fighting his dismissal by Manchester for gross misconduct. He denies any wrongdoing, and neither side would reveal the substance of the allegations.

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