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Roberto vs Roberta

Roberto Weber, Professor of Economics at the University of Zürich. (Photo Frank Brüderli)

By Nadine Afram

During the LERU (League of European Research Universities) conference at the University of Zürich in June, implicit gender bias as one significant explanation of the loss of female talent in academia was examined. One of the speakers, Roberto Weber, Professor of Economics at UZH, shared a very interesting thought experiment with us.
He started his presentation by asking, how – as a man – can you experience the implicit gender bias that women encounter during their career?
How would his career be different, had he been Roberta, not Roberto?
How did he come to be a Professor of Economics at UZH? Would Roberta have had the same career path? He examined his career steps, which I summarise here:

Starting an academic career:
When Roberto was a doctoral student, he was also passionate about playing soft ball. He wonders if Roberta would have had the same chances of succeeding in grad school and starting an academic career had she not been into playing soft ball, like his supervisor/professor at the time. It has been shown that social ties can play a critical role in career advancement (Granovetter, M. 1974, Bandiera, O., I. Barankay, I. Rasul. 2009, Beaman, L., J. Magruder. 2012).

Getting hired:

The LERU (League of European Research Universities) conference took place at the University of Zürich in June 2018. (Photo Frank Brüderli)

These biases have consequences. There are many reasons why “Roberta” would have fallen behind the career trajectory enjoyed by Roberto:
– Reduced access to valuable social networks throughout her academic career
– Negatively biased evaluations of performance because she doesn’t “look the part”
– Unfavorable weighting of criteria for hiring and promotions
– Additional point: Had Roberta been married and her husband had a higher salary (gender pay gap) would they have moved to the place where she had gotten a position or would they have followed the higher salary?

How can we remedy these sources of gender imbalance? De-biasing people is not easy:
– External evaluators, “neutral” third parties and women are often just as biased
– Awareness, instruction and calls for change are often ineffective

What is effective?
– Senior people who take the initiative. Any solution requires real commitment from the leadership
– Concrete structural changes
– Limiting/delaying information in hiring process, blind application (Goldin, Rouse (2000): Impact of blind auditions of female musicians. Behaghel, Crepon (2015): Unintended effects of anonymous resumes)
– Incentives for counteracting the bias. Incentives for blind information process: free tenure line for academic unit that attract the strongest female researchers and non-female hiring freezes for units below a threshold.

Roberto Weber concluded his presentations by saying that, although Roberta does not exist, he does have two daughters and that he hopes that he won´t experience implicit gender bias through his daughters, but instead that they have the same chances and opportunities as he himself had.

(Roberto Weber´s presentation can be found here:

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