Shades of bias colour shortlists

It’s tough for minority academics, as evidence of discrimination attests. David Matthews writes

January 10, 2013

A psychological study has found strong evidence of ethnic discrimination in a simulated shortlisting for an academic post.

White participants were much more likely to put forward white candidates, while non-white participants favoured non-white 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.

Professor Beattie showed 96 participants - most of them university students - four equally strong CVs with attached photos, two of non-white 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 colour-blind, 25 per cent would have selected two non-white candidates, 25 per cent would have chosen two white candidates, and half would have opted for one of each.

However, more than 60 per cent of white participants shortlisted two white candidates, and just 6.3 per cent put forward two non-white candidates. Non-white participants also betrayed bias, although less strongly: only 4.2 per cent selected two white candidates, while more than 25 per cent chose two non-white candidates.

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

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

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

When Professor 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”, Professor Beattie said. To help counter bias, he suggested that shortlisting panels should not see candidates’ names and should be more ethnically diverse.

Professor Beattie, a visiting professor at the University of California, 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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