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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


‘Unconscious bias’ is the current buzzword in gender equity. Organisations are running unconscious bias training left, right, and centre, and are we seeing momentous progress towards equity? Not quite.

Unconscious bias training has a few issues with it:

  • It can imply that diversity is a ‘compliance’ issue (much like you do OH&S training) which is too simplistic and doesn’t get the buy-in you need for a journey like inclusion

  • Running one session (or online course) rather than using an ongoing development approach has little effect on everyday behaviour as constant reinforcement is absent

  • It can lead to moral licensing – where we use past good behaviour to explain away future bad behaviour. This was described by Iris Bohnet in her book What Works like: “A chauvinist manager who has undergone (unconscious bias) training might assume a moral license when conducting his next interview.” Uh oh.

I have completed unconscious bias training modules, without having to interrogate my own biases which is really where the problem lies for each and every one of us. We can each address unconscious bias without having to rely on training our workplaces may or may not provide us - we can proactively start our own bias journey.

How? Well, Harvard has developed Project Implicit, where you can understand your implicit associations for groups such as gender, sexuality, race, age, weight, and more. I first did an Implicit Association Test (IAT) four years ago, where I was a little shocked that I associated women with humanities and men with science. I was a gender equity in STEM advocate, so that was a little awkward! I was literally a woman in STEM and I still implicitly associated women with humanities. Gosh.

Then I thought about it a bit more – my mum was an English teacher, and my dad a maths teacher. I didn’t watch any movies or read any books about women who were scientists (Legally Blonde is still my favourite move ever), and they sure weren’t well represented in the media I consumed growing up. I was one of few women in my STEM undergraduate degrees and Doctorate. All around me, I was taking in subconscious cues that women were not associated with STEM, so no wonder I got that result on the IAT.

I have this implicit association, and I am a woman in STEM. It’s bizarre, but what matters is how this bias manifests. I work hard to ensure I minimise the impact this implicit association has on what I do. For example:

  • Given my work as a gender equity advocate, I am more likely to be encouraging girls to study STEM than I am to automatically suggest it as a career path for boys

  • I actively form project teams with young women to ensure they get the experience and exposure they might not always get if their Project Manager was a man

  • When selecting imagery for The Fortem Project, or any other activity, I always ensure women are represented. This means I spend a lot of time searching for images!

  • I constantly reflect on my thoughts and actions and interrogate them for gender bias, particularly as I am surrounded everyday by so many men compared to the few women I work with, I need to be constantly vigilant of these attitudes and assumptions

It is a never-ending journey – and no online course is going to achieve the same thing in 30 minutes. Bias is such a hot topic because we unknowingly built it into our systems, processes, and culture which ensures these biases continue to live on. In STEM, this means we won’t see any change in our gender problem until we tackle this bias in all its manifestations. This is why it is so important to go on your own bias journey, while your organisation is hopefully redesigning its systems and processes to be more inclusive.

Understanding what your biases are, and how they may have been formed is an important part of your journey in becoming an inclusive family member, teacher, student, colleague, manager or leader. I suggest the following to help you on your journey to understanding and mitigating your biases:

  • Do an Implicit Association Test through Project Implicit (bonus points for getting a friend / colleague to do the same)

  • Reflect on your results and what experiences and cues you have received in your life that could contribute to that bias

  • Share your results and reflections with a friend or colleague, and discuss how this bias might manifest in your daily actions or thoughts about others

  • Commit to calling each other out on biased language and actions – own your learning journey

  • Join me in reading Thinking, Fast and Slow to better understand our flawed fast thinking and how we can tap into our slow thinking

The more we challenge our bias and how it manifests in our families, educational institutions, and workplaces, the more change we can achieve for gender equity in STEM.

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