Unconscious bias

August 28, 2014

It is a delight to hear about University of Oxford vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton’s recognition of the phenomenon of unconscious gender bias in academia (“Sexism in sector is unwitting but real, says Oxford v-c”, News, 7 August), and I happen to agree with him that both men and women play a part in permitting this state of affairs to persist.

I feel moved to point out that he was actually manifesting a gender-based, unconscious bias in the rest of his speech at the recent Universia International Presidents’ Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, which related to the importance of commercialisation of research.

In my discipline, academic medicine, women are more likely to be found undertaking research into “human effects”, the vital relational side of medicine out of which no money can be made. In public health, another academic discipline in which women do relatively well, the conclusion of most research is that investment is needed to improve the conditions in which we live, or that moneymaking out of toxic products such as tobacco, alcohol or sugar be curtailed so that disease and illness can be prevented.

If commercial research is valued above all other, then the sort of research women are more likely to undertake will be undervalued. So women will be viewed as less successful and will be less likely to be invited to participate in research excellence framework panels and grant-giving bodies where decisions are made about what is and isn’t valuable research. And so the cycle continues.

Commercial gain is one potentially valuable outcome of academic endeavour, but it can be an outcome that is valued above all others only if we believe moneymaking is the primary goal of living. As a woman, I am less likely to believe that.

Sarah Stewart-Brown
Professor of public health
Warwick Medical School

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