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Making processes anonymous to weed out bias

AUTM EDI toolkit suggests de-identification for grants, disclosures, job applicants

This article appeared in the January 2023 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

It’s common knowledge at this point that women and minority populations are vastly under-represented when it comes to the STEM professions, inventive activity, and even in tech transfer itself. There’s plenty of data to show that these groups participate in tech fields and are included in patents at far lower rates than their relative numbers.

To help TTOs and others involved in commercialization activity address this gap, AUTM recently released an Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Toolkit. The EDI Toolkit provides guidance in understanding implicit and structural bias, how to measure impact on EDI with research and data, and how to start or expand your diversity efforts. The goal is to help build an innovation ecosystem that works for everyone.

EDI initiatives provide several advantages in the workplace — and within TTOs and their university research enterprises — such as increasing employee satisfaction, promoting teamwork, providing a sense of belonging, retaining talent, and acquiring knowledge that fosters technological advancement. And, while it’s a challenge to make sweeping changes and drive obvious results, tangible change is possible through persistence and patience, developers of the toolkit point out. The AUTM effort is intended to provide TTOs with the tools needed to make meaningful progress in their EDI efforts.

Annonymizing applications, disclosures

One of the toolkit’s most interesting recommendations is a best practice that anonymizes employment and grant applications as well as invention disclosures (IDs) as a means of reducing or eliminating bias based on gender, race, and other factors.

The section below is excerpted directly from the AUTM EDI Toolkit:

Anonymous Application Process for New Employees or Inventors:

The goal of anonymization or de-identification of the applicant is to minimize the risk of implicit bias by the reviewer. Industries that have adopted anonymity techniques in their selection process have reported marked improvement in the diversification of their profession. For example, “blind” orchestra auditions were found to reduce sexual-biased hiring and increase the number of female musicians: In the years after these changes were instituted, the percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased from 6% in 1970 to 21% percent in 1993.

The development of a de-identification strategy is achieved under the guidance of the institution’s human resources office or a third-party security firm. The program should include a risk assessment to safeguard against re-identification and compliance policies to be agreed upon by the stakeholders involved. To ensure the success of the de-identification program, the requirements should be properly documented in the program plan and instituted at the onset of the program. The use of submission management software is recommended to reduce the risk of implicit bias.

As you consider anonymous applications for new employees or inventors, it is important to consider the following:

  • Initiate the de-identification process at the earliest stages of the interview or commercialization process, preferably at the receipt of each employment application or invention disclosure form.
  • Establish a unique identification number for each participant in lieu of using their name or other identifying factors. For example, Washington University TTO uses an HR number.
  • Establish safeguards to reduce re-identification and ensure these policies are carefully followed throughout the commercialization process.
  • Require proper authorizations and approvals for any exceptions for re-identification. Create a policy to inform the institution of its obligation to potential employees, or protect the IP, integrity and stewardship of the inventors as well as provisions for protection and privacy.

Addressing unconscious bias

The number one motivator in adding this section was to remove unconscious bias, according to Lisa Mueller, one of the Toolkit’s authors and incoming chair for AUTM’s EDI Committee. Mueller, a patent attorney with Casimir Jones, S.C., says studies have shown that diverse groups tend to accomplish more economically and that this move to eliminate bias works to meet that end.

“Removing bias initially helps to level the playing field,” she says. “In particular, it gives women that extra layer of confidence that they may often need to move forward with an [invention disclosure].”

Anonymizing IDs and grant or employment applications also shows a university’s serious commitment to diversity and inclusion. It demonstrates that they’re focused on skills and qualifications and may even tend to attract better employees.

Laura Schoppe, president of Fuentek LLC, a leading technology transfer consulting firm, says that implicit bias is undoubtedly present and that the anonymizing process will help to remove that. “We’re all human,” she says. “And this process is certainly valid in the invention disclosure and hiring process.”

Schoppe believes that the TTO community is being more cognizant of unconscious bias and has made a concerted effort to work towards a more inclusive ecosystem. She advises TTOs that are looking to make a change to focus on the back end. “The invention disclosure applications should remain the same, but the initial review process should change,” she says.

For example, she suggests that a third-party or student/intern handle the initial intake process to ensure there are no holes in the application — a triage stage of sorts. Once all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, the evaluation/analysis stage follows and the applicant’s name should be left out.

Almesha Campbell, AUTM Chair-Elect and assistant vice president for research and economic development at Jackson State University, who also serves on the AUTM EDI Committee, advises organizations to redact identifying information from applications to ensure a blind review process.

“Any application process that minimizes the personal information requested and provides a template format for resumes would be ideal,” she says. “Additionally, the steps in the application and interview process can be minimized to keep the process as anonymous as possible.”

Mueller reports that some universities are using codes instead of names, and others are using a third party take all the initial personal data and cut and paste it into a separate file before sharing the applications. While she admits this adds an extra layer for right now, once a new process is in place where those questions are eliminated altogether, it will be a lot more fluid.

“It’s the technology that matters, not the inventor,” Schoppe says. And she adds that there’s not just potential bias regarding race or gender, bias can also apply to personality. “For example, there are inventors who are notorious for being more difficult to work with or others who departments tend to kowtow to — this is a real bias too,” she comments.

Establish an overall understanding

The EDI Committee spent about two years putting the toolkit together, reviewing data and conducting in-depth research to inform their efforts.

“It was not done overnight,” says Karen Maples, chair for AUTM’s EDI Committee. “It was a thoughtful and purposeful process.”

Maples suggests that TTOs looking to make a change should first understand that we all have implicit bias. For example, prior to putting together the EDI Toolkit, all committee members completed the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. “Funny enough, one of our team members said that the test on sexual bias actually helped him to make some improvements in his marriage,” Maples says.

Once an understanding of implicit or unconscious bias is established, she suggests TTOs should proceed with an anonymization plan as follows:

  • Ask the question: What can we do to make this different? Start having conversations within your organization — HR, invention disclosure intake, grant review panels, etc. Don’t leap into a solution. It’s a deliberate process. Understand the greater issue at hand. Should it actually start with the application or something else?
  • Examine the options for how to get the plan off the ground, perhaps including a small task force to offer insight and consider the details around implementation. Have them make recommendations.
  • Encourage conversation and interactions with all stakeholders.
  • Start with a trial or pilot. Have a subset of applications where you implement the new process. Compare it to the old process. A trial will help you understand how it can and will work in your organization. You don’t want to make the process overly cumbersome or expensive.
  • Perform constant evaluation and assessment of what’s working and what’s not. It’s not a one and done, and the learning along the way can help make you aware of what’s real and what’s not in terms of bias.
  • Plan for how the system will be measured, tracked and understood.

Potential challenges

Mueller admits that there will always be some struggle during that initial change stage, and there will always be people struggling to grasp and accept it, but once a new process is put into place, eventually it’s like it’s always been done that way.

Campbell points out one possible challenge for TTOs and universities that use anonymous processes and do not capture demographic data, such as race and gender, is that they cannot easily track diversity goals to see whether increases have occurred. But at minimum you can take data from before the implementation of changes to compare against the make-up of staff applicants, patentees, and awards later to see if the needle has moved.

Even without hard data, “the bottom line here is that we help universities to achieve more EDI in their everyday way of doing business,” Mueller says.

Contact Mueller at llmueller@casimirjones.com; Schoppe at: laschoppe@fuentek.com; Maples at karen@futureforwardcenter.org; and Campbell at almesha.l.campbell@jsums.edu.


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