Addressing Implicit Biases in Faculty and Staff Searches

In search committee briefings this Fall, the Equal Opportunity Office has initiated new discussions about implicit biases and their effects on evaluating job applicants.  Left unchecked, these unquestioned assumptions that assign certain abilities to one group of people and disassociate the same abilities from another group, can impact how we review job candidates.

Multiple studies have identified ways implicit preferences, including unconscious racial and gender biases, impact hiring decisions. For example, one study found that fictional job applicants with stereotypically “White-sounding names” received 50% more calls for interviews than fictional applicants with stereotypically “African-American-sounding names" (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004, p. 992). Another study, conducted amongst academic psychologists, found that “both male and female academicians were significantly more likely to hire a potential male colleague than an equally qualified potential female colleague. Furthermore, both male and female participants were more likely to positively evaluate the research, teaching, and service contributions of a male job applicant than a female job applicant with an identical record" (Steinpreis, Anders, & Ritzke, 1999, p. 522).

To conduct equitable searches and hire the best qualified candidate, those of us involved in evaluating job applicants must deliberately work to override the implicit biases to which we might otherwise unknowingly default.  This is ongoing work, required at every step of every search of which we are a part.  Indeed, a “first step toward ensuring fairness in the search and screen process is to recognize that unconscious biases, attitudes, and other influences not related to the qualifications, contributions, behaviors, and personalities of candidates can influence our evaluations, even if we are committed to egalitarian principles" (Fine & Handelsman, 2005, p. III-2).

Here are a few things search committee members can do to reduce the potential impacts of implicit biases in searches:

  • Create diverse search committees. At institutions like Western, where faculty and staff of color are underrepresented in many areas and where women are underrepresented in multiple science and business fields, this can be challenging.  Best practices in such situations include forming committees containing individuals from a related department and inviting community members with relevant expertise to serve on search committees. A diverse search committee benefits from the multiple frames of reference of its members. These different perspectives aid in robustly evaluating candidates and identifying unconscious preferences that may be influencing some committee members’ assessment of applicants.
  • Agree from the outset of a search to raise concerns about implicit preferences that may arise. This is shared work, not only the responsibility of minorities and women serving on the committee. A committee’s agreement to address implicit biases also requires openness to the possibility that another committee member might raise a question about assumptions you are making or conclusions you are drawing. 
  • Build a diverse pool of candidates for the position. Research shows that unconscious biases may have a greater impact on underrepresented people when they make up only a small percentage of the applicant pool.
  • Be consistent in the criteria used to evaluate applicants, and in the opportunities afforded to applicants at each stage of the search. Before beginning review of applications, the search committee should discuss the precise meaning of the position qualifications and how they will be assessed.
  • Dedicate time to reviewing applications. When we are hurried in making decisions, unconscious biases are more likely to impact evaluative outcomes.
  • Remember that committees will need to provide one or more specific reasons that candidates are not being moved forward.  These reasons must always relate to the required or preferred job qualifications.
  • Consider the entirety of a candidate’s application. For example, be careful not to give undue weight to the prestige of institutions where candidates earned their degrees. Doing so might eliminate excellent graduates of women’s colleges, Historically Black Colleges or Universities, and Hispanic Serving Institutions.


    Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination, The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013.

    Fine, E., & Handelsman, J. (2005). Searching for excellence and diversity:  A guide for search committee chairs.  Madison, WI: Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Steinpreis, R. E., Anders, K. A., and Ritzke, D. (1999). The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study, Sex Roles, 41(7-8), 509-528.
Page Updated 11.22.2017