The habit of implicit bias can be broken, but it takes awareness and behavioural strategies, says a new study.
Guest contributor Viviane Callier
Gender stereotypes affect our attitudes and behaviours, even if we’re unaware of them. But the habit of implicit bias can be broken: an intervention with faculty at the University of Wisconsin helped to break the bias habit, led to an improved department climate for everyone, and increased faculty hires of women and underrepresented minorities, a new study shows.
Implicit bias comes out of automatic, unconscious cognitive processes that occur because of cultural stereotypes. These stereotypes distort the processing of information about individuals. Implicit bias tests are usually a time-sorted task, where the participant is shown a female or male name, and an adjective that aligns with stereotypes or not. For example, men are stereotypically associated with descriptors like decisive, ambitious, independent, willing to take risks, strong, brave — traits associated with leadership roles. Women are typically described as nurturing, gentle, supportive, delicate, soft — communal traits associated with supportive roles. Generally, people are quicker to sort the stereotypically aligned words.
In an implicit bias test at Harvard and another at University of Wisconsin, male names were more quickly linked to science whereas female names were more quickly linked to the liberal arts. About 70% of men and women have this implicit bias, the new study led by Molly Carnes, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Women’s Health Research, showed. Male names were also more likely to be associated with leadership roles whereas female names were more likely to be associated with supportive roles. “Just knowing these stereotypes can lead to occupational role incongruity,” said Carnes.
To combat this, the researchers developed an intervention consisting of a two-and-a-half hour workshop where faculty members took the implicit bias test to become aware of their own biases, and then learned behavioural strategies to better regulate them. The behavioural strategies included stereotype replacement; that is, recognising a stereotype and challenging it by imagining counter-examples.
The intervention was tested in 46 randomly assigned departments or divisions at the University of Wisconsin, and the results were compared to another 46 departments (at the same university) which did not receive the intervention. The intervention had a long-lasting effect: the departments that received the intervention hired a significantly higher percentage of women and minority faculty two years after the intervention, whereas this percentage did not increase in departments that did not receive the intervention. The researchers also found that stereotype suppression, and a personal belief in one’s own objectivity, were not effective in breaking the bias habit.
“Biases are a habit that can be broken, but it takes more than good intentions,” emphasised Carnes. “Changing that habit requires motivation and self-efficacy; you must believe that there is a positive outcome that will come from changing the behaviour; and you must practice the new behaviour until it becomes habitual.”
Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer in Washington, DC. She has a PhD in biology from Duke University. You can follow her on Twitter here.