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- Understanding Implicit Bias
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"Where we come from, our histories, and who we are in this hierarchical, racialized, gendered, and class-based world - matter in what we say and do. -Eric Gutstein"
"The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but unlearn. -Gloria Steinum"
While this essay applies to math, computer science, and other science, for the sake of brevity, we will just use the term Math instead of Math and the other sciences or similar terms.
Privilege and Oppression While most people have some understanding of discrimination, there is often little said about the flip side of discrimination, which is privilege. What is privilege? It is the unearned benefits afforded the dominant culture. These benefits come in many forms. Examples of Privilege:
- Automatic respect
- Automatic benefit of the doubt
- Job opportunities
- Identification with people who are powerful and/or intellegent and/or strong
- Identification with leaders
What is often cited as the greatest privilege afforded the dominant culture (white, male) is the benefit of not having to realize one's own privilege. Because the dominant culture benefits from the system of privilege, they are not forced by circumstance to study it, and they can choose to believe that all their successes are purely a result of their own merit. They have the privilege of believing that their achievements are based on their own merit. In contrast, those on the other side of privilege often need to invest much of their time and energy understanding oppression. Examples of Oppression:
- Perception of incompetence at every level (as students, faculty, staff)
- Perception that they are successful because of Affirmative Action
- Harassment by peers, teachers, supervisors, co-workers.
- Less mentoring, less access to education.
- More responsibilities at home (child care, elder care)
Research shows the surprising result that both the privileged and oppressed are incentivized to ignore, or maintain the system of privilege, but for different reasons. The privileged want to believe that their benefits are well-deserved and the oppressed want to believe that they can overcome their diminished status. This "Just World" view is part of a general preference for people who want to believe that the world is a good, safe, just place instead of an unjust place that needs to be changed.
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and beliefs that unconsciously affect our thoughts and actions. These biases occur without awareness or control. Both direct (such as life experience) and indirect (such as TV) influences form certain associations to people based on gender, race, age, and other characteristics.
Scientists studying unconscious cognition have shown that people do not always have conscious control over perception, impression formation, and judgment. The traditional paradigm about discriminatory behavior is that people discriminate due to conscious positive and negative thoughts about certain groups of people. According to this belief, discriminatory behavior is the problem of only a few racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. Although conscious discrimination exists, cognition scientists at Harvard, Yale, the University of Virginia, Tufts, the University of Washington, MIT, and others, have shown that implicit bias can be a much bigger factor in our thoughts and actions than conscious beliefs. Implicit biases can produce behavior that completely diverges from a person's avowed or endorsed beliefs so that even those who are actively fighting discrimination are prone to bias. Moreover, even those who suffer from discrimination can be biased against their own oppressed group.
The Kirwan Institute for the study of race and ethnicity, at Ohio State University lists some characteristics of Implict Bias:
- Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.
- Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs. They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
- The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
- We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.
- Implicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.
The list of American universities actively studying and addressing Implicit Bias is growing and includes Harvard University, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington,University of Illinois, Stanford Universit, UCLA, University of Florida, and Ohio State University. The list of international universities actively studying implicit bias is too numerous to mention. A growing both of implicit bias research indicates that implicit bias may be a major factor in preventing women and girls from pursuing or continuing careers in math and science, play a role in evaluation of work done by women in STEM, and influence overall treatment of women and girls' in STEM.
Science, and in particular, mathematics, is considered highly objective. A common thought in and out of academia holds that if molecules and equations aren't prejudiced, nor are scientists. Research sheds some light on this myth:
- White Americans, on average, show strong implicit preference for their own race and bias against women, the elderly, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and other ethnic minority groups (see , ,,,,).
- Women, minorities, and other oppressed groups are as likely to have biases against their own, or other, oppressed groups. (see , ).
- Gender and racial bias are rife in academia, even among those who believe themselves to be progressive and actively involved in nondiscrimination efforts (see ,, ,).
- Scientists are among the most prone to bias (see ,  ,, , ,).
- Gender bias negatively affects female students and female faculty, especially those in leadership positions (see , , ,).
- Diversity training has been found to be either ineffective or even worsen gender bias (see ).
The above research findings explain some of the following statistics:
- The percentage of female full professors is less than 10% in math and less than 13% in computer science (see ).
- The percentage of female math faculty at all levels is less than 20%; at elite research universities, this number drops to 10%. (see )
Mahzarin Banaji, Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, and her colleagues from the University of Virginia and the University of Washington developed an implicit bias test as part of their larger research agenda Project Implicit. More research studies on implicit bias.
Since the gender-science bias test was developed in 1998, more than half a million people in the world have taken it, with more than 70% of test-takers more readily associatiting science with male and arts with female. Moreover, women tended to have similar gender biases as men, dismantling the myth that women aren'talso gender biased against their own gender.
Once awareness of implicit bias is established, educators can be more attune to the effect their biases having on their teaching, evaluations, advising of their students and treatment of their peers.
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