Addressing unconscious and implicit bias: the importance of small steps

By Dr Luciana Esteves

Reducing gender imbalance in higher education and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) based careers is now in the agenda of many organisations. These corporate initiatives have great value as they can raise awareness, promote diversity and disseminate good practices and role models to a large number of people. In the last 10 years or so, the impact of unconscious and implicit bias on attitudes and behaviour is discussed by an increasing number of studies (see ECU 2013). It is less obvious, how small steps and actions can make a difference to people around us. The objective here is to stimulate a positive chain of (small but important) actions that each one of us can take to address the impact of unconscious and implicit bias.

Unconscious bias usually refers to influences on our judgements or attitudes we are unaware of or is out of our control, often resulting from our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. Even when our ‘unconscious’ influences become more known to us, it may still be difficult to overcome them, as they tend to be deep-rooted in our culture and social behaviour. We are then talking about implicit bias, which relates to biases we are becoming aware of (so it is no longer completely unconscious).

The first small step we can take is to identify where we stand in our own biases. The Implicit project (Harvard) has developed an online test that helps assessing biases specific to a range of aspects (gender, disability, sexual orientation etc.). Data from all participants are added to their database (no identity base information is collected), so by taking the test you are also collaborating with the study. You can access the tests here.

Once you complete the test, you can see how the results have been classified. The overall responses for the Gender-science IAT is shown below:

The second obvious step is to reflect on our test(s) results and assess what we can do with the gained knowledge. A good start may be to think about situations in the past in which these biases may have influenced our judgements and attitudes. For example, when taking part in a selection panel, is it possible that we have (unconsciously) favoured or disfavoured some of the candidates because of their gender, race, looks etc.? What could we have done differently? Could our judgement have been more objective if we had taken more notice of the available evidences?

This reflection makes us more aware of how and when implicit bias may be affecting our decisions. When such situations arise in the future, we can then proactively take the time to consider which actions we need to take to ensure we are doing the best we can to overcome or manage our implicit biases. The Catalyst (2015) describes six steps we can follow.

The document Unconscious Bias and Higher Education (ECU 2013) provides a number of recommendations (with focus on recruitment and selection), which I believe some are small steps that make a difference. For example, in a selection panel, the chair can alert members to think about the impacts of their unconscious biases in the selection process. Blind shortlisting may be helpful, but if not possible, by making panel members think about their biases, these start to change from unconscious to implicit, and therefore become somewhat more manageable. Additionally, the panel may want to look first at similarities between candidates (called de-categorisation by Hall et al., 2009) before analysing their differences.

One certain small step we can take is to talk about unconscious and implicit biases with our colleagues and students. Raising awareness and exchanging good practices reduce the unconsciousness of our actions and slowly enable us to stimulate a culture of equality.

A word of encouragement to a deserving student or colleague can make a difference in their decision to pursue their desired path. We all could have benefit from more of that really. So don’t forget someone around you may need just that small gesture.

References and interesting links

Catalyst. How to combat unconscious bias as an individual. New York: Catalyst, 11 Feb 2015. Available from: http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/how-combat-unconscious-bias-individual.

ECU (Equality Challenge Unit), 2013 Unconscious Bias and Higher Education. Available from http://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/unconscious-bias-and-higher-education.pdf.

Hall, N.R., Crisp, R.J. and Suen, M., 2009. Reducing implicit prejudice by blurring intergroup boundaries. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31(3): 244–254.

Researcher Professional Development team at the University of Sheffield, 2016. The tricks unconscious bias may play on researchers. Think Ahead Blog, 1 Feb 2016. Available from:  https://thinkaheadsheffield.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-tricks-unconscious-bias-may-play-on-researchers/.

The WISE Campaign (to promote women in science, technology and engineering) – https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/tag/statistics.

Featured image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fiach/14347059347/

Lu is a lecturer in coastal processes at Bournemouth University. Find out more about her here.

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