Below is our interview with Katie Peek, an astronomer turned data visualizer. After receiving her PhD in astronomy she went to NYU to get a masters in science journalism. She then interned as a writer and editor at Popular Science magazine, and stayed on to become a designer and then an editor. More recently she has transitioned to an independent career as a information graphics editor. She describes her path and her working environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.
Many universities and other organizations have begun
training their employees or students about unconscious bias, and some readers
may be thinking about proposing this in their organizations. I don’t mean the
training of faculty search committees that has become fairly routine now thanks
to efforts like the U. Michigan Advance Program’s STRIDE Faculty Recruitment Workshops,
which have set a model for higher education. Instead, I refer to the systematic
effort to reach most or nearly all employees, including faculty in
universities. This is a big step for any organization to take, though it is
easier for some than others. Fortunately, there exist good models in both
corporations and universities.
Before reviewing what has been done in this area, we should
ask why organizations are doing this. Why encourage or require all of your employees
to take a 1-, 2- or 3-hour unconscious bias workshop?
A common answer is that unconscious bias widely affects our
judgment about people in ways that are counter to our organization’s values or mission. For example, the culture of astronomy and other fields
of higher education adopts meritocracy as a fundamental ideal. Meritocracy is
appealing, but who determines merit, and how? I have never seen a tenure
committee or a graduate admissions committee defer to a computer algorithm; the
practice of the academy relies on expert judgment, usually without recognizing
that each expert has a “personal equation” (to use the wonderful phrase
describing the bias present in individual’s eye-based measurements of
photographic plates) needing to be corrected. Education can lead to process
improvements and, thereby, to improved outcomes.
Another reason for having universal unconscious bias
education is to start a process of culture change that increases the valuation
of diversity and inclusion in an organization. If I discover that my automatic
judgments are systematically biased, I may be curious about other ways that I
and the organization are inadvertently working against the meritocratic ideal. I have
seen many faculty members from privileged groups become interested in learning more
once they have recognized how unconscious bias works.
A final reason is that the organization’s leaders can show
that they value people by responding to requests for such workshops brought by
students and employees, and hope thereby to improve loyalty, morale, and pride in the organization. This is happening at a number of universities.
The Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison has long been a leader in both research and education about
unconscious bias, enhancing department climate, and related topics. They have
developed a research-validated intervention to help faculty break the gender
bias habit and have published
results of a randomized controlled trial. Like Google, they aim to change
hiring outcomes over time by helping all those involved in recruitment to make
more effective use of the potential talent pool.
Changing the composition of our faculties, or of engineers
in tech firms, is obviously a slow process. That is exactly why practitioners
should view unconscious bias workshops not as a quick fix, but as a first step
-- one that must be refreshed periodically to increase awareness of the factors
that inhibit meritocracy and to equip professionals with the skills needed to help
In later posts I will describe what is happening around
these issues at my own university.