How a statistical paradox helps to get to the root of bias in college admissions

Simpson’s paradox is a statistical phenomenon in which a trend appears in small data sets, but differs or reverses when those sets are combined into a larger group. One of the most fascinating examples of the paradox comes from a study about gender bias in graduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley in 1973, when roughly 44 per cent of male applicants were accepted, compared with only 35 per cent of female applicants. These figures appeared to show an obvious bias against women, but when the data were broken down by department, they actually showed a slight bias in favour of women. This animation from MinutePhysics explains just how Simpson’s paradox occurs and, in the case of Berkeley, how the paradox highlighted a deeper societal bias that pushes women towards departments that are more crowded, have less funding, and offer poorer employment opportunities. 

Video by MinutePhysics

Support Aeon

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

But we can’t do it without you.

Become a Friend for $5 a month or Make a one-off donation

Essay/Evolution

Evolution unleashed

Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul – or is talk of ‘revolution’ misguided?

Kevin Laland

Idea/Biology

Biodiversity isn’t just pretty: it future-proofs our world

Elizabeth Boakes

Video/Astronomy

What our eyes miss in the sky – stargazing beyond the visible light spectrum

3 minutes

Essay/Fertility, Pregnancy and Childbirth

We are multitudes

Women are chimeras, with genetic material from both their parents and children. Where does that leave individual identity?

Katherine Rowland

Idea/Energy, Resources, & Sustainability

Want faster data and a cleaner planet? Start mining asteroids

Philip Metzger

Video/Evolution

When is it worth sacrificing your life for the next generation?

5 minutes