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Scientists fight prejudice in gowns

Petition suggests all wear commoner's gown to avoid prejudice

A petition to make commoner’s gowns compulsory for all candidates presenting vivas, oral exams most scientists have to pass in their final year, has been signed by nearly 300 Oxford students in two days.

With this, the petition is almost one third of the way to the goal set by Emily Gowers, Vice President of the Oxford Society of Biomedical Sciences. According to Gowers, this is a “widely shared concern” scientists had already raised in past years.

The petition description claims that examiners might be unconsciously prejudiced when speaking to a candidate in a scholar’s gown as opposed to a commoner’s, either automatically giving them the benefit of the doubt or leading to the examiners asking harder questions as a result of higher expectations.

“Considering the efforts that Oxford makes to ensure that written exams are unbiased (e.g. candidate numbers),” the description argues, “it seems ridiculous that during a viva the examiner has a full view of your academic history – and you’re wearing it!”

“Viva exams will never be flawless, but the system can be improved”

Emily Gowers

Signatories include humanities students as well as scientists, with one pointing out that the same question of bias applies to oral exams for modern linguist finalists.

Evoking the similarity of the situation in which post-graduates who present MSc and PhD theses find themselves, Gowers tells Cherwell, “Our hope is that making this positive change within undergraduate science degrees will pave the way for evaluating fairness across all viva exams. Viva exams will never be flawless, but the system can be improved.

“All the Oxford examiners are experienced professionals but even they may be unconsciously swayed by these biases.

“Unconscious bias is an inevitable part of any face-to-face interaction and the best we can do is try to reduce the possibility of it happening.”

Gowers is confident that the goal of 1,000 signatures will soon be reached, and says she plans to get JCRs’ and faculties’ support before presenting the result to the Proctor’s office.

“This seems to be an easy win that could help reduce bias, but has no significant disadvantages,” signatory Will Kocur told Cherwell.

“Of course, we won’t be able to completely eliminate prejudice and it still exists towards regional accents, for example.

“Equally examiners are likely to still have their opinions unconsciously affected by personal characteristics of the candidate as well as those of some group they may belong to, be this scholars or a religion or race.

“Hopefully the relevant authorities would appreciate the logic and supportive research on which it is based.”

Similar propositions were made for biologists who will be assessed at presentations this week to coordinate their gowns on a voluntary basis.

However, this idea was then rejected in a Facebook poll in which a total of 98 people participated. Half the year opted against the initial proposition, choosing to wear the gown they preferred to their exams instead of commoner’s gowns.

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