Students hosted a panel to discuss how implicit bias manifests itself in their surroundings. Student Alliance for Violence Education (SAVE) and Graduate Students in Psychology (GRASP) brought four panelists from different backgrounds to Lorton Hall on March 7.
Clinical psychology graduate student Merdijana Kovacevic began the event with an overview of research on implicit bias in higher education. First, she went over the underrepresentation of people of color in academia. Then she explained that implicit biases, like explicit biases, are attitudes that affect understanding and behavior. However, implicit biases are uncontrollable and outside of one’s awareness, sometimes to the point of conflicting with one’s declared beliefs.
Kovacevic discussed a 2012 study on gender bias as an example. 127 biology, chemistry and physics professors evaluated applications for a lab manager position. All the applications were the same; only the gender varied. Participants were randomly assigned to assess either female applicants or male applicants. Female applicants were generally rated lower on hireability, competence and mentoring. They were, on average, offered a salary around $4,000 less than that offered to men.
In another study, researchers posing as inquisitive students sent emails to 6,548 faculty members at 259 American universities. The faculty members were from a variety of disciplines: business, education, human services, engineering and computer sciences, life sciences, and natural/physical sciences and math. The emails were all the same except for the race/nationality (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese) and gender (male, female) of the supposed student. Faculty members across disciplines — regardless of racial/national background — ignored requests from women and minorities at higher rates than they did Caucasian men.
Kovacevic added that the effects of bias on the recipients of it are detrimental. Psychological well-being decreases while psychological distress, anxiety and depression are more likely. Overall physical health decreases and blood pressure increases.
Next, SA Vice President and SAVE President Whitney Cipolla spoke on some changes that would increase inclusivity on campus. She said TU should be more accessible to transgender people as well as people with disabilities. Two areas of improvement included roll call and physical spaces. To avoid confusion, professors could email those on their attendance sheets before the semester started and ask for gender and preferred name. Bigger desks and longer times for open doors on elevators would also be helpful. Cipolla added that professors could allow different ways of achieving participation points for students who are not neurotypical.
Jazzmin Wilson, a student at the TU law school, presented on how implicit bias can affect various aspects of the legal system. First, she described how lawyers are mostly non-Hispanic Caucasian men between the ages of 40 and 50. Law classrooms are similarly homogenous, and even those minorities who graduate don’t typically stay in law practice.
At the TU law school, one of the 42 faculty members is African-American: Professor Johnny Parker. Across the country, around twenty percent of law school faculty members are people of color. There is no national requirement for law school courses required to take the bar exam to focus on civil rights or gender.
Meanwhile, when lawyers write questions to filter out potentially biased jury members, sometimes their questions can lead to non-representative juries who are implicitly biased in other ways. For example, said Wilson, asking whether potential jury members are Democrats and then dismissing those who answer affirmatively is more likely to remove minorities from the jury. In New York City, when jury members are required to provide an NYC driver’s license, people with lower socioeconomic status are less likely to have one since they can just take public transportation. When lawyers ask to remove potential jury members who have ever been harassed by police, they disproportionately turn away people of color.
Lastly, industrial/organizational psychology professor Dr. Bradley Brummel warned of discussing implicit bias too narrowly. He said it can be easy to fall into a trap of “going after the symptom” of implicit bias rather than “working on the system.” Focusing on implicit bias could steer people away from solutions, just like how worrying about the ACT’s potentially biased questions distracts from unequal access to educational opportunities between different socioeconomic classes.
He said implicit bias manifests itself in various ways; for example, professors at a university may not necessarily be thinking about gender or race when hiring a new colleague, but they will likely want someone who went to the same kind of school as them, or presents at the same caliber of conference. Yet these requirements can also conflate with gender and race.
At the same time, he said, those who believe in the existence of implicit bias can sound imprecise when trying to tell others of its presence. Dr. Brummel asked audience members to determine what percentage of underrepresentation is due to implicit bias. When no one offered a number, he said that it was critical to be able to acknowledge to what extent other factors that play a role in underrepresentation. That way, one gets a better view of the importance of each factor.
One example of a different factor was money. He said TU has seen some minority professors leave because they were offered a higher salary at more prestigious schools, and TU just could not compete. Organization-wide policies meant to combat implicit bias can also be expensive.
Dr. Brummel added that even well-meaning advocates against implicit bias can be unpersuasive. If one begins a conversation with “everyone has bias,” people get defensive, so sometimes you have to “come in sideways” — address the issue without making people feel attacked. If people always call out others for using microaggressions, the end result is that those who were called out feel less of a desire to spend time with people different than them.
And in the end, he said, there is no good evidence to suggest that simply making people aware of their implicit biases is enough to change their biased behavior.
Rather than target implicit bias, Dr. Brummel said advocates should reframe the issue to be about decision-making in general. If people can realize that they are always bad at making decisions but will always think that they are good at it, they might be more willing to entertain the question of “How do we create a system that won’t let us do this?”
After all four panelists spoke, psychology graduate student Jim Scholl asked them questions about how to move forward. The panelists agreed that it is important to distinguish implicit bias from structural and explicit bias. Dr. Brummel added that the famous Implicit Associations Test would not be reliable or valid enough to say, hire bias-free police officers. He also stated that TU wants to move toward helping first-generation college students achieve success.