UA Tackles Unconscious Bias

Feb. 1, 2011

Change is afoot. The goal is nothing short of institutional transformation.

In recent years the University of Arizona identified unconscious biases at work and developed systematic ways to counter those subtle influencers.

“We all carry various kinds of bias,” said Dr. Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. These biases stem from our human tendency to organize our social world by categorizing.

Unconscious gender bias was demonstrated in a UA analysis of letters of reference for equally credentialed male and female candidates applying for faculty positions. The study found that letters recommending men tended to include their title of doctor and refer respectfully to their research, while women were more likely identified by their first name, lauded as a valued team player or described as “promising.” Other studies used identical resumes – submitted with a male name, then a female name – and found the reviewers had similar biases.

“Our goal is to alter the culture of the institution by eradicating unconscious bias. This will contribute not only to the intellectual environment of the UA, but also more broadly to the health of scientific disciplines,” Dr. Tolbert said

All across campus, department heads and search committees have had their awareness raised by taking quick and revealing tests that demonstrate unconscious bias, then systematically examining every aspect of hiring – including more inclusive job descriptions, broader recruiting methods to expand the applicant pool, establishing clear credential requirements and assuring that each candidate is asked the same questions and allotted same amount of time for answers and discussion.

In the fall of 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded the UA a $3.3 million five-year ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Award: Eradicating Subtle Discrimination in the Academy. Dr. Tolbert is the principal investigator for the project. The UA is one of 37 institutions nationwide to receive an ADVANCE IT grant.

UA ADVANCE has a three-fold mission – to promote faculty diversity, create an equitable climate within the institution and to support women toward leadership roles and academic careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The central focus is on STEM because that’s where women and minorities are, well, still in the minority on college, university and medical school faculties. 

One model developed by the UA already has gone national. It’s used by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to address unconscious bias in the medical profession.

Dr. Anne Wright, professor and associate dean for faculty affairs in the UA College of Medicine, led a project to adapt the initial UA ADVANCE search committee orientation to one that would specifically address the hiring and advancing of women in medical schools. The UA copyrighted this and licensed it to AAMC.

Dr. Wright moderated the first panel that addressed unconscious bias at the AAMC annual conference. She said, “This is really getting national attention now.”

To underscore the need, Dr. Wright quoted research that women have made up 45 percent of medical school enrollments for the past 16 years – yet nationally only 15 percent of professors in medical schools are women.

Previously Wright was involved in the College of Medicine’s GRACE project and studied causes of disparity between male and female faculty in promotion and tenure processes – identifying both barriers and solutions. The research continues.

“Data can be a powerful force for change,” Wright said. “If you can do careful research and communicate it to people, then you can change behavior,” she said.

UA ADVANCE presentations offer steps to counteract unconscious bias, including:

  • Revise job descriptions to increase the diversity of the applicant pool. Be sure that minimum requirements do not exclude potentially qualified candidates. One example would be asking for 10 years experience as a department head in a field such as engineering, where women were seldom promoted to that level at that time.

  • Recruit more widely. Advertise not only in scientific publications, but also with other publications and professional organizations that target women and minorities. Also recruit at conferences.

  • Identify ways to support the new hire’s long-term success, including mentorship. With NSF ADVANCE IT funds, UA ADVANCE also has provided grants to support research and produce data that could lead to greater peer recognition and new funding sources.

Several UA units and programs have assessed and addressed the needs of women and under-represented minorities since the 1990s. They include the Commission on the Status of Women, Millennium Project and GRACE Project, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women and the Gender and Women's Studies department.

But prior to UA ADVANCE, the university did not have a sustained, administrative-level initiative meant to curtail instances of gender inequity within the context of hires, promotions and campus climate, Dr. Tolbert said. 

For more information:

In preparation for reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission’s North Central Association (NCA) in 2010, the University of Arizona has crafted a Self-Study Report documenting and evaluating performance in each of five key criteria: Mission and Integrity, Preparing for the Future, Student Learning and Effective Teaching, Creativity and Knowledge Discovery, and Engagement and Service. In this report, the ADVANCE project was cited as it demonstrates the quality of the University for NCA re-accreditation. The complete 2010 Self-Study Report can be downloaded at