Professor awarded for achievement in social justice by YWCA

5 April 2017
Alex Garoffolo, Student Writer

During her acceptance speech, Professor Janet Levit discussed how implicit bias negatively affects everyone’s social and professional lives.

On Friday, February 24, former Dean of the TU Law School and current Law Professor Janet Levit received the Anna C. Roth Legacy Award at the Women of the Year Pinnacle Awards, hosted by YWCA Tulsa in partnership with the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women. The award is “reserved for outstanding, highly-deserving candidates who are able to reflect on a lifetime of worthwhile contributions to the field of social justice.” In her keynote address, she spoke about how implicit bias unfairly impacts the lives of women and, as a result, distorts their (and everybody else’s) social and professional lives and potentials.

Implicit bias “operates subtly, beyond the purview of not only the law but our consciousness,” stated Levit. She told the crowd a well-known riddle to illustrate an example of this. “A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene, and the son is quickly rushed to the hospital. In the operating room the surgeon looks at the boy and says, ‘I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son.’ How can this be?” Think about the answer that first comes to mind after a moment. A most likely answer, that the surgeon is the boy’s mom, eludes most people upon first hearing the question. Put another way, it’s “implicit (unconscious) gender bias” that surgeons are normally men.

Levit described implicit bias as a coping mechanism: since our brains deal with so many pieces of information constantly, daily, they create easy pathways to assist in processing it all. “So, our brains develop shortcuts,” she explained. Immediately thinking the surgeon in the riddle was a man is a perfect example. Others include “Asian=intelligent, black male=criminal, Muslim=terrorist or poor=lazy,” Levit added. The human fight or flight response is hardwired to make decisions in nanoseconds based on physical appearances of other people — implicit bias is an outflow of that. Does this make all humans bad? No. But it is something of which people must stay aware of each time they judge others.

In contrast to implicit bias, explicit bias is what the justice system was designed to address. An example of explicit bias: when Levit’s mother was told — in 1964 — that she would only be allowed to pursue her master’s in chemistry at Northwestern if she promised she would not pursue a Ph.D. Why? “The male professors told my mom that it was not appropriate for a woman to take a slot in the doctoral program from a qualified and deserving man,” Levit told the crowd.

Levit went on to say that our “brains implicitly associate men with leadership and power and women with softness or weakness incompatible with leadership.” She cited facts showing that women attend college at a much higher rate than men, yet the amount of women in leadership roles in corporate America (20 percent) and female lawmakers (24 percent) shows the plateau in women’s professional career paths. Often, this plateau is attributed to implicit bias in the interviewing process.

Still, there are steps one can take to “bust the bias” as Levit put it. “Own it. [Recognize] we’re all biased and take the implicit association test to open your eyes.” Remain cognizant. “Be vigilant and vocal. When you see bias, call it out,” Levit continued. Keep others accountable for their actions. She concluded: “the struggle against implicit bias is not over. Now is the time we must recognize it in ourselves — and understand our own personal responsibility in becoming bias-busting agents of change.”