How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases
Implicit bias refers to bias that is subtle, unconscious, or hard to pin down. These biases are associations or mental connections that we may consciously believe are wrong or problematic, like racial stereotypes that cloud judgments in courtrooms or subtle preferences for men leaders versus women leaders. We learn these associations from the media, from our family and friends, and in our classrooms and workplaces.
In connection with the release of Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, AAUW commissioned a tool — an Implicit Association Test, or IAT — to investigate implicit bias against women leaders. In early results from the AAUW gender/leadership IAT, even women who identified as feminist had a slight tendency to more quickly associate leadership with men more than with women (though nonfeminists and men showed greater bias). Our implicit biases can hurt others, but they can also work against our own identities, sincerely held beliefs, or even our careers.
So what can we do to reduce the effect of implicit bias? Fighting subtle, implicit biases is difficult. There are no easy answers. Just like it can be hard to tell when we’re being discriminated against, it may be even harder to tell when we’re the ones doing the discriminating. We might think that we’re making decisions based on the objective facts of the situation, but biases could be creeping in. How can we ever be sure that we’re free of bias? There’s no way to be totally certain that we’re being 100 percent fair at all times. But there are concrete steps that individuals and institutions can take to reduce the effects of implicit bias.
Social psychologist and prejudice expert Patricia Devine has likened implicit bias to a habit. Like any habit, becoming aware of the habit and being motivated to change are necessary first steps. Once you’ve taken those steps, here are some concrete strategies to overcoming your biases.
- When assessing the behavior or performance of someone from a stigmatized group, try to focus on concrete positive and negative factors and your memory of what actually happened, rather than relying on overall “gut” feelings.
- Notice when your responses, decisions, or behaviors might have been caused by bias or stereotypes, and make an intention to think positive thoughts when encountering those individuals or other members of stigmatized groups in the future.
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- Imagine, in detail, people who violate expected stereotypes in a positive way and practice thinking about these positive examples. Thinking about these people may help make these counterstereotypic examples pop up in your mind in the future.
- Make an effort to assess and think about members of stereotyped groups as individuals. Recall their individual traits and how they differ from stereotypic expectations.
Decision making at institutions is often formalized in a way that differs from when we’re making decisions for ourselves. But subtle biases do creep in — after all, institutions are made up of individuals — and there are institutional ways to combat them.
- One strategy? Give job applicants greater anonymity. Holding orchestra auditions behind a screen, obscuring the gender and other personal characteristics of the applicant auditioning, accounted for as much as half of the large increase in the representation of women in top orchestras between 1970 and 1997. One option that might work outside the music industry is anonymizing initial job applications. Skills-based assessments with no individual information attached, a model pioneered by a start-up called GapJumpers, may be an option for some types of job applications.
- Make sure evaluations are conducted in a structured fashion. Carefully considering individual positive and negative traits or behaviors of the person being evaluated, rather than relying on overall “gut” impressions, can help reduce the effect of bias. Multiple studies have found that this process, called structured free recall, reduces the effect of bias faced by women, black men, and overweight people in situations such as job interviews or performance evaluations.
- After hiring is complete, many features of workplaces — relationships with co-workers, performance evaluations, and opportunities for advancement — may be colored by bias. One important bias-reduction strategy is a commitment to diversity and inclusion in decision making, planning, and leadership. Sometimes workplace or organizational bias that is invisible to one person will be readily apparent to someone with a different background or set of experiences. Part of avoiding bias on an institutional level is making sure that a diverse group of people are in the room and are being listened to.
Avoiding the effects of implicit bias requires motivation and constant vigilance, but we can all contribute to making the world a fairer place.
As AAUW’s Barriers and Bias report finds, the reasons why we equate masculinity with leadership have little to do with facts and a lot to do with stereotypes and assumptions.
Working with Project Implicit, AAUW built an IAT that investigates how people associate gender and leadership
Watch as a panel of experts, moderated by journalist and author Cokie Roberts, discuss the report’s findings.