Battling Unconscious Biases

Most of us know that we harbour implicit or unconscious biases, but are at a loss about how to address them. Many orchestras have long acknowledged these biases and have responded by having job candidates audition behind a screen to ensure anonymity, resulting in an increased number of women in these orchestras. Similarly, the Society for Music Theory has worked at removing the impact of these biases by engaging in double-blind review of articles for the Society’s journals; double-blind review has been successful: the acceptance rate of articles by women in Music Theory Spectrum and Music Theory Online is on par with men.

Most scholars, whether male or female, believe that they are not prejudiced against women, or members of the LGBTQ communities, or people with disabilities, or people of colour, but scientific studies show us clearly that unconscious biases shape all of our interactions. As bell hooks says, we are all capable of being both oppressed and oppressor (Hooks, 2000, 16). We unwittingly act on these biases in a number of ways, but I will focus here on letters of recommendation, on our citation habits, and on our invitations to conferences and academic panels. It is only by recognizing and actively countering these biases that we can dismantle systemic barriers and create true diversity in our institutions and in this Society. Here are some concrete suggestions for how to do that.

Letters of reference for male students, whether or not the letter-writer is male or female, are “4x more likely to mention publications” and emphasize research, praising achievement, while letters for women are 50% more likely to use adjectives that praise effort (Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona). When we write letters for women, we need to make a deliberate effort to highlight their achievements.

In academic publications in general, we cite more male authors than female, which has a negative impact on the careers of women. You can address this problem by checking your bibliography and resources when writing your next article or course syllabus, and deliberately seeking out work by women.

Finally: avoid the all-male panel; seeing panel after panel of only men presenting reinforces implicit bias. If you can’t think of a female theorist who is working on the topic of your special session or event, review recent issues of music theory journals, and check out the SMT Committee on the Status of Women’s most recent resource, a directory of women in music theory, developed by student member, Stefanie Acevedo.

Jennifer Bain

List of citations:

bell hooks. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press, 1984; 2nd edition, 2000.

Avoiding gender bias in reference writing.” Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona.