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Accelerating Women’s Leadership Advancement to Effect Positive Transformation

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AWARDS Best Practices
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THE BEST PRACTICES FOR AWARDS PROCESS

There are a wide range of steps societies can take to improve the transparency and equity of their awards process. Many of these principles carry over to other types of committee and group dynamics as well.

Implicit Bias Training

The concept of implicit bias, which was developed over 50 years ago and is supported by decades of evidence, posits that regardless of the conscious ideas we espouse, we subconsciously hold notions about people that reflect the culture in which we were raised. As social beings, all of us unconsciously categorize people into groups based upon stereotypes, as shortcuts to effective social interaction. Numerous studies have shown how implicit gender bias affects career progression, including in the STEM professions.

Take the Gender-Science Implicit Association Test to Explore Potential Biases

Gender Neutral Language

Language may subtly influence nominations. Small differences in how criteria are described can affect images of the ideal nominee. Using a mix of male-associated as well as female-associated words is likely to produce a more diverse pool of applicants. Committees also should be alerted to the use of gendered language they may encounter in letters of recommendation.

Male-Associated Words



Female-Associated Words




Calculate Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation and Solicitations
Vocabulary words from Schmader, et. al, 2008

Reviewing and Updating Awards Portfolios

Society leaders should think carefully about why they give awards, and whether their current portfolio of awards serves the goals and strategic plan of the society.

  • Names of awards: Societies often name awards for pioneers and leaders in the discipline, but named awards may give subtle cues. Selection committee members, for example, might hesitate (subconsciously or consciously) to give an award that was named after a man to a female researcher.
  • Subdisciplinary awards: Some awards, particularly those instituted several decades ago, may no longer reflect what is cutting-edge within the discipline. Societies should review the society’s portfolio in light of shifting subdisciplinary trends for both aging and emerging fields.
  • Timing of awards: Many awards attract very few nominations for various reasons. Societies should consider giving some awards less frequently to deepen the pool of candidates.

Developing a Diverse Pool of Nominees

A large, diverse pool of nominations is crucial to achieve adequate representation of researchers in a discipline, and societies should be prepared to forgo making awards if the pools are not sufficiently deep and diverse.

  • Society-wide nominations or canvassing committees: This committee could be charged with identifying a diverse set of possible candidates, contacting senior members to encourage nominations, and developing criteria for acceptable candidate pool benchmarks that must be met before an awardee is selected.
  • Disseminate solicitations in a range of ways: Societies should employ dissemination strategies to reach those comfortable with online technology as well as those who prefer traditional methods of communication, such as society journals, magazines, and newsletters. 
  • Gender-neutral language: The use of language is important in solicitations as well as letters of recommendation to reduce unintentional bias.
  • Define evaluation criteria explicitly: Solicitation language should clearly reflect desired qualities the committee will evaluate, and also should delineate the components of a nomination package (ie. CV, statements, nomination documents)
  • Women’s and minority committees and caucuses: One of the primary functions of these groups is to support career development, they can provide names of potential nominees, compile nomination packages, and contact well-respected senior colleagues to submit nominations.
  • Consider whether to allow carryover nominations: Some committees require fresh packages every year, while others allow nominations to carry over for a period of one to many years. The danger of allowing carryover nominations is that committees may be tempted to give awards for persistence rather than merit.

Evaluate Nominees Objectively

Selection committees are social organizations, and thus are subject to social influences. Acknowledging and possibly highlighting potentially biasing influences can produce more objective outcomes.

  • Committee diversity: Having a diverse panel of individuals to solicit and review nominations may result in more diverse outcomes. We also recommend that societies have clear procedures for committee appointments, and make it easy for members to apply for such appointments. Some fields have particularly low numbers of women and minority researchers, whose time is already pressed by an overwhelming number of requests to sit on committees. It may be counterproductive to the careers of these individuals to participate in so much committee work. Therefore, the primary focus should be on training committee members to objectively evaluate nominees, regardless of who sits on a committee.
  • Define and prioritize desired qualities and qualifications: When committees evaluate candidates, members should have a shared idea of what qualities are most important, and they should agree on the weights of desired attributes before the nominations are evaluated. The committee must commit to consistently using their prioritized list of qualities. We recommend a rubric with points assigned to those qualities.
  • Conflicts of interest: Committee members should decide (or the society should provide guidance) on what constitutes a conflict of interest (COI). Some that might trigger automatic recusals includes one’s own student, postdoc, mentor, collaborators, and work colleagues. Other possible COIs can arise if the nominee has been trained or employed at the same institution as a committee member, if the committee member has reviewed manuscripts or proposals of the nominee, et al. Discussion of what constitutes a COI and how they should be handled is essential to ensure equitable outcomes, but most importantly a committee member with a determined conflict of interest should announce such conflicts to the entire committee and possibly be excluded from commenting or deliberation on that particular candidate.
  • Review of materials: A high volume of nominations may necessitate a division of labor for the review process. However, every nominee deserves to be evaluated by at least two committee members. Reviewers should fill out a standard rating sheet before the committee meeting commences to standardize the review process.
  • Planning for the committee meeting: Many committees confer by phone or online rather than face-to-face. Although in-person deliberations would be ideal, situations where committee members meet remotely should incorporate mechanisms to allow visual cues (such as webcams). Additionally, it is crucial to allot adequate time for the deliberation, as rushed discussions rarely result in the best outcomes.
  • Committee interactions: Committees are social groups, and social interactions affect group decisions. Agreeing upon a process to ensure that every member is heard promotes equitable outcomes, and generating a climate where everyone’s opinion is heard and valued takes effort. The chair has an important responsibility to ensure that discussion focuses on accomplishments rather than personal qualities and institutional affiliations of the candidate, and for managing disruptive behavior, rudeness, or bullying among committee members. Repeatedly referring to standardized ratings of previously agreed-upon criteria can be especially helpful in directing an objective discussion.
  • Voting: Anonymous voting encourages individual members to express their true preference rather than voting with the group, as influenced by political or social dynamics.


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