Unconscious Bias in Education Abroad?

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2015
By Lily Lopez-McGee

There’s a buzz in private industry about how unconscious bias is preventing more diverse and traditionally underrepresented professionals from accessing top level leadership positions within corporations. The case for having a diverse team of employees has been well documented (see Resources below), but it appears that when it comes to recruiting, hiring, and promoting we (humans) are hardwired to prefer those who look, think, and act more like we do (here’s a quick video that breaks down what unconscious bias is). As many industries are dominated, particularly at the top levels of leadership, by a fairly homogenous group of professionals (straight, white men), diversifying those who are hired and promoted at all levels appears to be more complex than changing a handful of policies (though that can be a great way to start!).

For many reasons, it makes sense that private industry is taking a serious look at how their current hiring and internal promotion practices might be limiting access to professionals who represent diverse backgrounds. One of the biggest driving factors for this may be that a company’s ability to compete in their field requires that they think innovatively to develop new solutions and create new products. Research has shown that diverse groups, when managed effectively, are more creative and productive.

While the business case for private companies might appear to be more explicit (more diverse teams leads to more sales), higher education could also benefit from exploring how unconscious bias may influence the recruitment and selection of diverse student populations as well as the subsequent services that all students receive once they are enrolled. Like so many other industries, higher education administration has not traditionally reflected the diversity of the student body on campus, and as a result institutions may have embedded and esoteric policies and practices that create unnecessary barriers to recruiting, hiring, retaining, supporting, and engaging diverse faculty, staff, and students.

Education abroad and international programs offices are not immune to these challenges, and must, if the commitment to diversify the student participation in education abroad programming is real, consider how unconscious bias might be impacting both student recruitment and engagement as well as hiring and promotion practices.

How do the learnings from corporations influence how we think about advising bias in education abroad?

Relying on study abroad office networks may not be reaching diverse and underrepresented students

Some of the most compelling findings from research done on unconscious bias in private industry is that while companies require that new positions be announced publicly and broadly, many hiring managers depend on personal networks and current employees to attract candidates for positions. Considering that our unconscious selves automatically think of people who think, act, and look like us, relying on who we know to recruit students and employees may actually be undermining our efforts to diversify those students we are reaching.

One way we can begin to address this is to reach out to those on campus who may have connections with diverse students to not only get the word out, but to also collaborate to better understand how to connect with diverse students. This can include reaching out to other student services/affairs offices (e.g., multicultural/diversity, financial aid, Trio) as well as diverse faculty members.

These efforts can help us in not only reaching a wider audience, it also has the potential to expand our own networks so that when we do rely on who we know to spread the word, that audience is also more diverse.

Assumptions about certain student populations may be undermining the advising process

The implications for unconscious bias reach beyond recruiting and hiring; they also have the potential to undermine our interactions with diverse students as we prepare them to go abroad. Before students have the opportunity to tell us what their interests or concerns might be, many advisors may already assume they know what challenges students face. We may assume that our Pell-eligible students want short-term programming and only present short-term study options in our advising session. Or we might start our conversation with a Latino student with a discussion about the Gilman scholarship. While students might take such advice in stride, students may also opt to move forward with their planning without re-engaging with the education abroad office, leaving the chance that they may miss important deadlines and information that otherwise would have been relevant to their experience.

We can begin to move beyond our assumptions by allowing the students to drive the conversation, taking note of their needs and interests, and providing information accordingly. We can also ask probing questions along the way to help them think about all of their options and consider all of the information and resources they have available to them.

It’s also important to engage students at all points in their experience with the office. Offices could include questions in existing pre-departure and re-entry surveys that ask students about their experiences with unconscious biases, or perceived barriers or challenges they may have had in their interactions with the office/organization. Involve the students in the process!

Hiring practices and ‘requirements’ may be undermining intentions to hire more diverse staff

Many of us in international education find a particular affinity with the idea that those in the field all share the common experience of having spent some time abroad during their lifetime. When it comes down to the type of job that you’re asking someone to do, though, is having an international experience really required to do the job well? This is just one example of how our expectations for job candidates may already be working against our interests in diversifying our staff (remember, those who have and do study abroad still reflect a fairly homogenous population). There, of course, may be positions that do depend heavily on an education abroad advisor’s own experience abroad. There are likely many positions, (e.g., accounting, office management), though, that rely more heavily on functional skills rather than the experience of going abroad.

Just as with our students, it’s important to engage current and former employees to better understand what the issues/concerns and strengths of our offices are. It may be helpful to survey current and former employees about their experiences and suggestions for improving the hiring/recruitment process.

It may also be worthwhile to explore how the current hiring and promotion process weighs certain experiences/skills over others to create a rubric that considers a wide range of talents that candidates bring to the table (e.g., add points for candidates who worked in college). It’s also important here to explore the full hiring cycle (e.g., screening resumes, interviews, onboarding, assignment process, performance evaluation) to assess potential unconscious bias. One good short-list for other suggestions is Diversity Best Practices “Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace” (pg. 15).


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Unconscious Bias in Higher Education

Testing Unconscious Bias

Case for Diversity

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