Bias in personnel decisions: every single one of us could make a difference

Michel DeGraff recently drew my attention to a provocative article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post (“An Ivy League professor on why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color”). The most thought-provoking message I took away from reading the article was that we should watch ourselves, both when we exaggerate achievements, but also when we overlook flaws and blemishes and when we make exceptions and excuses. We exaggerate the achievements of certain people, but not others. And we overlook or excuse the flaws of certain people, but not others. I have seen this mechanism at work (with various kinds of biases, including race, gender, national origin) in personnel actions for hiring, renewals, tenure, promotion, awards, disciplinary measures or annual evaluations of colleagues, but also when we assess the achievements and problems of our students. These are the kinds of situations that are a routine part of our professional lives. These are also the kinds of situations where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?

Excerpt from follow-up article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post: “I received more than 6,000 emails after my essay about diversity in faculty hiring was published in the Hechinger Report and The Washington Post. Most were from people of color telling me their stories, many of them gut-wrenching and sad. One African American woman wrote, “despite having terrific credentials and applying for over 200 faculty positions, I have been denied for a faculty position over and over, making me wonder if pursuing a PhD was worth it. … I wonder if I should discourage other African Americans from doing so.” People told me my essay made them cry.”

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