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Recognizing, Characterizing, And “Unsettling" Unintended Bias In The Faculty Search Process In Engineering

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Focus on Faculty

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.1012.1 - 14.1012.11



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Paper Authors


Kristen Constant Iowa State University

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Kristen Constant is an Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University.

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Sharon Bird Iowa State University

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Sharon Bird is an Associate Professor in Sociology at Iowa State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract


Faculty searches are one of the most critical activities undertaken with regards to shaping the future of a department, college or university. Despite the importance of this activity, most search committees are comprised of faculty who have very little time to commit to this task, and little if any training on ‘best practices’ or policies for conducting searches. National recognition of the need in faculty search processes for decision-makers to understand the prevalence of unintended biases and how to combat them has grown precipitously in recent years. Cognitive scientists have shown that many of the selection and evaluation processes we undertake on a daily basis are alarmingly contaminated, despite our good intentions. The term ‘cognitive errors’ has been coined to describe such errors in judgment. The objectivity of these evaluations is further compromised when we are overburdened and distracted. Common beliefs about how women and men, people of color and white people, act, feel, and express themselves often unintentionally enter into our decision-making processes. This is true even among people who eschew sexism and racism—because beliefs about gender and about race are part of the social norms of our society. Few of us stop to consider how taken-for-granted beliefs and expectations might be affecting our decisions. It is in this manner that gender and race biases commonly impact faculty search processes. In turn, engineering departments continue to struggle with hiring highly qualified women faculty. However, there are strategies to minimize the impact of unintended bias on faculty search results. In this paper, we discuss two examples of faculty search processes in which biases were demonstrated both in conversations and evaluations within search committees and in letters of recommendation for candidates. The extensive research on cognitive errors is used to provide a systematic analysis of these examples and approaches to minimizing the impact of unintended bias through promoting awareness are presented.


Despite that most universities have stated goals of diversity and non-discrimination, it is well established that gender inequities remain among the university faculty, especially within engineering.1 Numerous studies have investigated the barriers encountered by women with aspirations of university careers, many referred to in “Beyond Bias and Barriers”, a 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences.1 These studies seek to provide a deeper understanding of various issues including those pertaining to the career pipeline, and faculty recruitment, retention and advancement. Recognizing the critical need for full participation of women in the sciences, the National Science Foundation has supported for the last 7 years efforts to study and improve recruitment and retention of women faculty in the sciences through the ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program.2 Work within this program has allowed researchers to study multi-faceted approaches to increasing participation of women faculty at many institutions, including our institution. In this paper, we will examine the faculty search process with respect to the barriers confronting women. First, the context of the faculty searches will be presented, then the concept of cognitive errors introduced.3 (See also empirical studies in this area.4- 7) Examples of such cognitive errors will be analyzed and approaches to minimizing

unintended bias discussed. Most of these approaches are designed to ‘unsettle’ (in the minds of faculty) that which has become accepted knowledge about the normative practices of the university.8 In other words, we are attempting to encourage faculty to

Constant, K., & Bird, S. (2009, June), Recognizing, Characterizing, And “Unsettling" Unintended Bias In The Faculty Search Process In Engineering Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4894

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