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THE BLACK HOLE

Raising awareness on the disparity of women in science and the impact of implicit bias

A guest post from Dr. Kellie Machlus, who asks the question: what processes can we set in place to guard against implicit bias and increase diversity in our ranks?

By JONATHAN THON | April 6, 2017

The Black Hole is no stranger to conversations of gender equality in science – many of which have resulted in very productive discussions in our comments section.

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing these discussions elevated to a higher platform through the organization of a power hour on gender issues during the 2017 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Megakaryocytes and Platelets. This session was organized and run by Drs. Kellie Machlus and Elizabeth Gardiner and was incredibly well attended and received. I have asked Kellie to share the rationale, structure, and fallout from this meeting below.


This session was started in 2016 by the Gordon Research Conference’s (GRC’s) board of trustees with the intention to “support the professional growth of women in our communities and to build on the GRC’s history of inclusion.” In its current state, it is a voluntary one-hour session that the GRC chair decides whether or not they would like to incorporate into the meeting. The session must be organized by a woman, and is scheduled to run during the afternoon break. Luckily, our chair saw the worth of such a session and asked Liz and myself to organize and run it. I was first introduced to the Power Hour at the 2016 Hemostasis GRC, where Dr. Alisa Wolberg created a thoroughly-researched, informative, and enjoyable session. Alisa was kind enough to allow us full access to her presentation, which we were able to use and expand upon for our session in February 2017.

Often, the idea of this kind of “women in science” session brings to mind a scene of women sitting in a circle complaining (often rightly-so) about sexist and discriminatory experiences. In fact, I commonly don’t go to such meetings for fear of that exact scenario. Therefore, we set very specific goals for this Power Hour:

  1. the session be appropriate for and attended by both men and women and
  2. the session be scientific, goal-oriented, and productive.

In order to achieve this, we structured the hour very specifically; the first 15 minutes was going to be a brief presentation and the following 45 minutes reserved for breakout groups. Importantly, the presentation was made to be scientific and specific. We focused on defining the problem (the disparity of women in science and the impact of implicit bias) through data and statistics, presenting examples of how people have tried to address and rectify the problem, and then tried to end with data about whether or not these interventions worked (this data was harder to find).

At the end of the presentation, we divided into four breakout groups trying to identify scientific processes that can minimize the impact of implicit bias at a range of career points: postdoc to faculty transition, hiring, promotion and tenure, and grant funding. Each group had a pre-designated leader, and we posed the following questions to the participants: How can we, as scientists, apply science to restructure the process at these critical points? What processes can we set in place to guard against implicit bias and increase diversity in our ranks? After 30 minutes of guided discussion, we all reconvened and the group leaders presented some key points for general discussion.

In the end, the event seemed to be well received. At the least, we accomplished our personal goals, as attendance was high (45 people out of 120 total at the conference) and diverse (both male and female of all different career levels). In addition, the feedback from attendees was very positive. They both enjoyed participating in the session and reported learning new things about gender inequality and bias and the conversations on this topic continued well after the session. In fact, I had at least five people contact me after the session asking for the PowerPoint so that they could share it with their labs back at home. From these things alone, I consider the session a success. We were under no false pretenses that we could solve this problem with 45 people in one hour. However, by raising awareness, perhaps people will think twice about what words they are using to describe a female versus male applicant when they are writing a letter or recommendation or their implicit bias when reviewing grants.

Dr. Kellie Machlus is an instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Marina / April 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    I’m curious to learn what were the responses to the questions posed (“How can we, as scientists, apply science to restructure the process at these critical points?” “What processes can we set in place to guard against implicit bias and increase diversity in our ranks?”)

  2. Miriam / April 19, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    I was part of the earlier version of the Power Hour at a Gordon Research Conference in August 2016. It did take the form of women, and a few men, sitting in a very large circle discussing issues, however it certainly did not devolve into complaining – it was a very real and productive discussion. Being the youngest attendee, and youngest woman, there, I did not have much to add, but it was invaluable to me to hear all the different stories, good and bad, shared by women and men. I’m glad to hear that the Power Hour discussions are gaining some traction at GRC’s, and sophistication with presentations. Hopefully, one day they will be a more permanent and official part of the conferences.

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