Find out more about unconscious bias and staff progression and retention. 

The University of York Strategy 2020-2030 explains our commitment to tackling bias in everything we do, and outlines our future aspirations regarding staff recruitment, retention, and progression:

“Our academic and professional services staff mirror the diversity of the student body. We eliminate gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps.

Our talent management programmes remove barriers to career progression so that our academic and professional support leadership teams are representative of the University’s overall population, specifically in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic background.

A diverse staff body is a benefit not just for staff, but for students too, because it enables staff to work together to learn from each others’ diverse lived experiences to shape a curriculum that values different kinds of skills and knowledge.” (University Strategy, 2020-2030).

There are many reasons why people with some characteristics might be under-represented in particular academic areas and in senior leadership positions. Grogan (2019), for example, presents the “leaky pipeline” model to illustrate the key reasons why women drop out of progressing in STEM careers. The Gender Bias Simulator (see further information) illustrates how small biases in processes such as promotion can lead to large disparities in career progression for women.

Anna Einarsdóttir explains in her video on staff networks that it’s important we think about who’s “not in the room”, and why, when we have meetings and discussions about equality - and similarly we need to ask questions about what’s missing when we think about equality data.  

Currently, the University only partially understands the characteristics of its staff. Although we have great monitoring data for some characteristics, like sex, ethnicity, and disability, other characteristics have such low completion rates that it’s hard to get a picture of our staff profile. As of December 2022 for example, the University’s staff equality data looked like this:

  • Disability: 8% disabled, 78% non-disabled, others not known or prefer not to say
  • Ethnicity: BAME 10%, White 79%, not known 11%
  • Nationality: UK 78%, European 9%, rest of world 12%, not known 1%
  • Legal Sex: 56% female, 44% male
  • Sexual orientation: 72% data missing, but staff identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual, and other self-described identities
  • Gender identity: 71% data missing, but staff identify in a number of ways including female, male and non-binary
  • Religion: 79% data missing, staff identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Spiritual, other-religion, and no-religion
  • Carer responsibility: 72% data missing, but 11% of staff say they have caring responsibilities

If we want to make sure we include everyone at the University, we need to ensure that we understand that we are not a homogenous group, and we need to think about who’s “not in the room”.

In this section, members of staff from various departments explain how various activities and actions contribute to developing a university culture that values, nurtures, and retains a diverse workforce, and encourages staff to progress in their careers.

Contact us

Equality and Diversity Office
+44 (0)1904 324680

Dr Lorna Warnock: Athena Swan

Dr Lorna Warnock on how the AdvanceHE Athena Swan Gender Equality Charter and Principles help the University move towards gender equality.

Dr Lorna Warnock. Athena Swan Coordinator, Equality and Diversity Office

Athena Swan

Lorna explains how adhering to the AdvanceHE Athena Swan Gender Equality Charter and Principles helps the University move towards gender equality across all departments by creating and supporting both a University-wide and departmental specific action plans which include tackling barriers to career progression, raising awareness of unconscious bias, enhancing unconscious bias training, and improving reporting of bullying and harassment. Athena Swan action plans contain strong drivers for improving recruitment and retention of a diverse staff and student body, increasing representation of women at senior levels, supporting the Women in Research Network, and engaging with the University’s gender and ethnicity pay gap reports and actions.

I'm Lorna Warnock and I'm part of the University Equality and Diversity Team.

I'm also the Athena Swan coordinator for the University of York.

So Athena Swan is a gender equality charter that the University has signed up to and it contains principles that protect gender equality and the University holds a bronze Athena Swan Award.

The department and schools, we have 23 out of 27 Athena Swan Awards, including three gold awards and three silver awards. So we're very proud of the work that we've been doing across the University for Athena Swan.

Many universities and research institutes have signed up to the Athena Swan charter and it's really important that we support diversity and intersectionality across the academic career progression.

One of the things that Athena Swan does is it provides a set of principles for the University to adhere to and we look at items and topics through a gender lens, a gender and intersectionality lens.

The point of Athena Swan is that we have an action plan and within these actions we are responsible for improving gender equality and intersectionality. Things that are included in the plan:

So we have unconscious bias raising awareness and enhancing training for unconscious bias. We have plans to improve bullying and harassment reporting. And we have plans to enhance the recruitment and retention and diversity of our staff and students.

We want to enhance opportunities for senior leadership, for females and, and women, those identified as women and non-binary staff across the University. We want to enhance the diversity of staff and students at the University. So we're looking at ways to do that.

We support the Women in Research Network, so for career progression and development. We monitor and take a really hard look at our gender pay gap. And this year we've introduced the ethnicity pay gap also. So we look at and concentrate on some very important issues for gender and intersectionality  across the University.

And one of the things that we are doing at the moment is to look at ways to mitigate the gender inequalities that have been felt by our staff following the COVID-19 pandemic.

We enjoy the support of senior leadership, including our chair of our Athena Swan steering group, Kiran Trehan, and she's the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for partnership and engagement. And our steering group, the colleagues of our steering group are drawn from across the university and we also have student representation, which of course is very important.

The point of the Athena Swan Action Plan is that it's flexible and diverse and dynamic and we can incorporate new changes and monitor and enhance our gender equality as it changes across the University.

Dr Anna Einarsdóttir: staff networks

Dr Anna Einarsdóttir explains work they undertook in the NHS on the importance of LGBTQ+ staff networks which is also of significance to HE institutions.

Dr Anna Einarsdóttir, School for Business and Society

LGBTQ+ Networks Toolkit

Anna talks about the work they undertook in the NHS on LGBTQ+ employee networks, and how networks are assumed to be representative of particular groups of people when they might not be diverse in themselves. This has implications for other institutions where staff equality networks operate, such as the University of York, where networks which tackle inequality and bias may themselves replicate unconscious biases.  

Anna explains how meetings are central to such networks, and how those meetings operate in ways that can exclude particular voices. Anna raises questions about how we can ensure all voices are heard, how we might ensure diversity in meetings and engage with those who don’t attend, and how we can support people to bring their whole identity to meetings and fully take part. Heavy agendas, for example, may not provide enough space in meetings for individuals to express their views and explore issues that are not set out in advance. Such considerations are of relevance beyond equality networks, in other meetings and committees, where some voices are stronger than others, and many voices may simply be absent.  

I'm Anna Einarsdottir, I work in the New School for Business and Society.  I want to share with you a piece of work that we did into LGBT+ employee networks operating in the NHS.

One of the things that we found was that actually the composition of networks, the members, it was actually quite a homogenous group, which is problematic for a lot of different reasons because LGBT+ networks are meant to be representing a broad group of people, but what our research showed that really the networks were not diverse at all.

We spent a lot of time with the networks, and one of the things that we saw very quickly is that meetings were absolutely central to their operation. And as a result of that, and we discussed that as a research team, we found it really difficult to show really what happens at meetings.

So we decided to make a film that captures that really well. And the film is called ‘Any Other Business’.

So the meeting being so central in how networks operate, in the same way that we as a university have a lot of meetings.

So what we found was that the meetings were dominated by heavy agenda and we've all seen them and we've all been to a lot of meetings where we had to go through a lot of motions and everything has to be recorded and reported and so on.

But the thing that people really want to discuss was often left to the end of the meeting under any other business.

Really it tells the story of the network chair, Natasha who is just taking over as chair of the network and it just shows how she deals with the challenges of running the network and particularly about inclusion and exclusion.

If we don't have a diverse group of people there are some really important questions that they ask. Can they really act as a mouthpiece for the whole community?  And if not, what do we do about it?  How do we actually include people who are not there? 

But even if the the voices were there, there's so much that needs to be thought about in a very, very careful manner to really enable people to bring their whole selves to the table, if you like, on the virtue of their different identities. The meetings are so dominated by agenda,

but anything else that people want to bring to the table is left to the very last minute.

And that's the point when everybody else is leaving. So that's not a good point to discuss something that really matters to people and perhaps that's something for us to think about, whether we could actually start with any other business rather than leaving it to the end to give it the really the space that it needs.

But the film also captures, you know, what we felt as a research team about sitting through long meetings that the boredom that comes with that and how difficult it is to keep momentum as they go along for hours at meetings.

Professor Elva Robinson: social networking

Professor Elva Robinson explains what measures were taken to ensure that all staff are included in social networking in their department. 

Professor Elva Robinson, Athena Swan Champion, Department of Biology

Making social events more inclusive

In organising social events, we may unwittingly exclude people from diverse backgrounds. Elva speaks about the importance of ensuring that all staff and students are included in all departmental activities, by creating a varied social calendar to appeal to a wide range of people from different cultures and backgrounds, and with different interests.  

Activities include online events such as photography competitions, in-person casual drop-ins, and group activities such as quizzes. The scheduling of activities also varies by day and time, to encourage people with other commitments or people who work part-time to attend. Refreshments at events are varied to include people with different diets, and care is taken to ensure events are not overly focused on alcohol.  

As part of their Athena Swan Action Plan, the department undertook work to see whether their approach to inclusion in social events was working, through low-key monitoring where people drop a token into a box labelled with a characteristic they identify with. They use this information to analyse who attends different sorts of events, and then consider changing aspects of events to attract a wider range of people.

I'm Elva Robinson, and I'm the Athena Swan champion in the Department of Biology. It's really important to us that all our staff and students feel fully welcomed and included as members of the department.

One of the ways we do this is making sure that all of our social events are inclusive for the staff and students within the Department.

Our social committee have put a lot of work and creativity into designing a program of events which is really varied so that there's something for everyone, something that everybody can participate in.

We have online events such as a photography competition that people can participate in as and when works for them.

Of course, we also have in-person events and those vary from big casual drop-in events like for example, ice cream in the summer where people can come along and stay and chat for as little time or as long as they want to.

We also have more formal structured events like, for example, a quiz that people can participate in with a group of friends. 

We make sure that the time of the week and the time of the day is variable between events so that we're not excluding people that work part time on particular days or people for whom evenings just don't work.

We make sure that the refreshments offered at these events are inclusive, accommodating people with different diets, and we make sure that we don't frame our events strongly around alcohol because that's not very inclusive and welcoming for some people.

As part of our biology Athena Swan action plan, we set out to find out whether we're actually succeeding in making our social events inclusive for our whole department. So we've set up a very low-key form of monitoring for these social events. We have boxes labelled with different identities at the events, and people can take a token and drop it into one of the boxes that they identify with. So this is a very unobtrusive, casual way of getting an idea of which groups of people are attending, which of our events. It's fully anonymous and optional.

And this means that over the cycle of events, within a couple of years, we can identify which of our events are inclusive to a wide range of people in our department and whether some of our events are attracting a much smaller group and maybe could be tweaked to make them more inclusive.

Dr Hannah Roche: lecturer evaluations

Dr Hannah Roche gives an example of work undertaken with students to try and mitigate unconscious bias in students’ evaluations of lecturers which can have an impact on applications for promotion.

Dr Hannah Roche, Department of English and Related Literature

Tackling unconscious bias in module evaluation forms

Hannah explains how student feedback on module evaluation forms, in particular feedback on dissertation supervision, could contain unconscious bias that favours male academics over female academics. Gendered language tended to praise male lecturers for their academic expertise, and female lecturers for administrative and pastoral roles. A note was added to all of the department’s evaluation forms to alert students to unconscious bias, not just about gender, but about other characteristics too.  

Other departments in the University have also undertaken related activities for similar reasons, including adding notes to evaluation forms, but also discussing unconscious bias with undergraduate student cohorts. A couple of examples from History, and English and Related Literature, are copied below:

"Student evaluations of teaching are often influenced by unconscious and unintentional biases in relation to the teacher/lecturer and, for example, their gender, race, age or accent. Please think carefully about how you are evaluating your experience across different modules, and consider your scores and word choices when completing module evaluation questionnaires. Please focus on your opinions about teaching and learning, and take time to reflect on what you have gained from the module." 
English and Related Literature

"Student evaluations of teaching play an important role in the annual review of academic staff. At the same time, studies show that student evaluations of teaching are often influenced by students’ unconscious and unintentional biases about the race and gender of the lecturer/tutor. Women and BAME lecturers/tutors are systematically rated lower in their teaching evaluations than white men, even when there are no significant differences in their teaching or in what students have learned.
As you fill out the course evaluation please keep this in mind and try to focus on your opinions about the content of the module (the assignments, the materials, the in-class activities) and not unrelated matters (the lecturer/tutor’s appearance)."

So we found that there was evidence of unconscious bias in students' module evaluation forms and specifically in the feedback that students were providing on dissertation supervision. 

Male supervisors were often described as motivating, interesting and experts in their field, whereas women were described as calming, caring, kind, supportive and quick to respond to emails.

So whereas men were being praised for their academic expertise, women were being praised for the kind of administrative and pastoral support that they were providing. 

Obviously, we're really grateful for any positive feedback, and in an ideal world, we'd all want to have all of these qualities.

But we thought that it was important to draw students' attention to the unconscious  and entirely unintentional biases that can affect our opinions.

And we added a note to the top of all of our student module evaluation forms just to alert students to unconscious biases not only around gender, but also around race, class, accent and age.

It's a bit too soon to say whether there has been any positive change, but I think we're all hopeful that there will be.

Dr Lorna Warnock: Women in Research

Lorna co-founded the Women in Research Network, which went from 15 members five years ago to 180 members in 2022. Membership of the Network is open to women, those who identify as women, non binary colleagues, and PhD candidates. Originally set up to support women in science, it is now open to staff across all disciplines.

Watch on YouTube

Dr Lorna Warnock explains the University's Women in Research network.

Lorna co-founded the Women in Research Network, which went from 15 members five years ago to 180 members in 2022. Membership of the Network is open to women, those who identify as women, non binary colleagues, and PhD candidates. Originally set up to support women in science, it is now open to staff across all disciplines. The Network offers an opportunity for members to support one another with their research and career progression. It also organises an Annual Women in Research Conference on International Women’s Day, and is supported by senior women leaders in the university. The conference has included showcasing and celebrating women researchers’ achievements, confidence building, and mitigating imposter syndrome. The network has also provided information and training on topics such as mentoring, autism in women, challenges faced by trans colleagues and menopause awareness. The Network is responsive to feedback from members and endeavours to deliver topical information and training to support health and wellbeing and career development, among other topics, and is responsive to feedback, so will tailor content to suit identified needs in future.

I'm Lorna Warnock and I'm part of the equality and diversity team here at York, and I'm also the Athena Swan coordinator.

I'm one of the co-founders of the Women in Research Network. We started off with 15 members nearly five years ago and we now have over 180 members.

The network welcomes women and those that identify as women and non-binary colleagues, and we've also extended the network to invite PhD students as well.

So we are growing and we're five years old next year, which is very exciting for us.

Initially, the network was for women in science and now we've extended it across all disciplines across the University. We've also opened up to PhD students, which is great. 

One of the things that we've been looking at is the academic promotions process, and we've looked at the changes in that and related those changes to our staff.

Every year we have a Women in Research Network conference, which is supported by Kiran Trehan, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement and also Matthias Ruth, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research.

We usually start the conference with a keynote speaker and then we have workshops on imposter syndrome and all kinds of confidence building. We do workshops on menopause and then we showcase some of our female researchers from the University of York.

And it's really a great day and a celebration of women at York. And also it's part of our celebration of International Women's Day.

So we have some really excellent and important senior leadership input into the network.  We look at ways that we can support each other across the network.

And what we hope is that we we obtain feedback from our members and we can change the program of support and provide the events that members need and enhance the inequality of career progression for women, those that identify as women and non-binary staff and students.

The LGBT+ Networks toolkit is free to use and available on the LGBT+ Networks website.

Research (Boring et al, 2016) indicates that student evaluations of teaching can be biased against female lecturers, can be affected by the students’ gender, and can lead to more effective lecturers receiving lower evaluations than less effective lecturers.

Dr Sue Westwood, University of York Law School, provides a recent literature review (Westwood, 2022) (PDF , 214kb) of gender bias in student teaching feedback, which also outlines the Department of Biology’s approach to mitigating student evaluations of teaching. It also covers some of the literature on Unconscious Bias training.

You can explore more about our staff and student equality characteristics on the university’s equality data web page.

The Gender Bias Simulator illustrates how a small bias in retention and promotion criteria can result in surprisingly large differences between the number of men and women in senior roles.  The simulator could also be applied to characteristics other than sex, for example, ethnicity or disability.  In using the simulator, it may be helpful to imagine how bias might play out at the University, considering staff progression and promotion from Grade 1 to Grade 8 (grades being synonymous with the 8 “levels” described in the simulator). As an example from the simulator, a 1% bias favouring men, after 8 iterations (cycles of promotion) could result in 70% of Grade 8 roles being occupied by men, and only 30% by women. This is of course simplistic, and promotional cycles don’t work quite like that at the University (certainly not across all staff roles and job types) but it does indicate how a small bias can lead to large inequalities over a few years.  5% and 10 % bias lead to faster and larger inequalities, meaning men overtake women sooner and to a greater extent. 

The Harvard Implicit Bias Test provides a series of short, fun and engaging online tests that are designed to help us identify where we might have biases that we are not aware of around age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, trans people and race.

Athena Swan is a charter that is awarded to departments and institutions in recognition of their commitment to tackle gender inequality, including career progression and seeks to address “structural inequalities and social injustices that manifest as differential experiences and outcomes for staff and students” (Charter principle 2). You can read more about how Athena Swan helps to address inequality on the University’s Athena Swan Charter web page. Addressing Unconscious Bias by raising awareness and provision of training is included in the University’s Athena Swan Action Plan. Unconscious bias is important to recognise, because we are often unaware of the systems and processes that work against particular groups of people and lead to unequal outcomes. You can find out more about Athena Swan and other Equality Charters from the AdvanceHE Athena Swan web pages.

The Women in Research Network supports career progression, health and wellbeing for women, and those who identify as women, involved in research, and seeks to address systemic gender inequalities.  It is open to women of all backgrounds and this includes people who identify as trans women or non-binary. We recognise that women's experiences, while often common or similar, are different depending on their background, heritage and life experiences.  

The University’s Gender and Ethnicity Pay Gap reports provide information on pay inequality related to gender and ethnicity, and outline the university’s action plan to close the gaps.  You  may notice that many of the issues and actions highlighted on this unconscious bias training page are also mentioned in the action plan, including efforts to recruit a diverse workforce, setting targets for balanced shortlists, and supporting under-represented groups in promotion. 

The University Strategy 2030 “A University for Public Good” outlines various aspirational targets, including: shaping a diverse curriculum; addressing continuation, progression and award gaps for students; eliminating gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps; removing barriers to career progression for all staff, especially in relation to gender, ethnicity, disability, and socioeconomic background; making campus accessible; and recruiting a diverse workforce.

The University’s Department of Chemistry has produced a paper with embedded videos explaining their approach to providing equality, diversity and inclusion training for students: What Makes a Professional Chemist? Embedding Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion into Chemistry Skills Training for Undergraduates  It covers a wide range of issues, including unconscious bias, ethnicity and race, LGBTQ+, disability, and gender equality.  

Complete your learning

Now that you've learnt more about unconscious bias and staff progression, go to the LMS and complete the quiz to demonstrate you have completed the learning. 

You might also like to complete an action plan to record anything that you intend to take back to your department or service area for discussion.

Contact us

Equality and Diversity Office
+44 (0)1904 324680