Scientist To Speak On The Unconscious Biases That Hold Sway Over Our Actions

By Anne Constable
The Santa Fe New Mexican.

The United States is now free from many obvious forms of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race, religion, age and other factors.

But it is not free from “unconscious bias.” Scientists say most of us have it.

Unconscious bias surfaces in performance reviews, when words like “assertive” are used to describe a woman in a negative way but compliment a man.

It shows when white police officers shoot unarmed black men.

It rears its head when skilled older workers are turned down for jobs.

And it appears when female students receive less mentoring than their male counterparts.

Even when we think we are treating people fairly, we might be giving in to these hidden biases, says Jennifer L. Raymond of Stanford University, a neuroscientist who is coming to Santa Fe this week to speak about this less attractive human trait that is becoming a hot topic among researchers.

“Most people want to be fair because that is the right thing to do, and it is in the best interest of our institutions not to choose just white, male talent,” Raymond said. “But there is a lot of data showing that is not what we do.”

Our judgments about people’s character, talent and potential are shaped by images we have been exposed to, she said.

Detecting bias is a growing business. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard professor, and Anthony Greenwald, a professor at the University of Washington, are pioneers in an association test that explores implicit bias. One company launched recently is developing software that it believes can spot gender bias in job descriptions and performance reviews. Some scientists are trying to capture images of brain activity of people who may be acting on unconscious biases.

And other research is focused on how to get rid of unwanted learning, like the persistent memories that torment people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Raymond, who studies mechanisms of learning and memory, is particularly interested in how unconscious bias leads many young female scientists to drop out of the profession at critical points in their careers. She said she knows women can be great scientists, but even she had a “moderate tendency” to associate men with science more than women when she took the association test.

That comes from a lifetime of exposure to images that reaffirm this bias: for instance, walking by the photos of Nobel Laureates, all men, at her faculty club. “We are still bombarded with these images,” she said.

Even scientists — who are trained to be objective — rate résumés with male names higher than those with female names, she said. Men often are perceived as more competent and are offered higher salaries. Hidden biases, she said, cause us “to misjudge talent.”

A lot of progress was made in the 1970s and ’80s to ease gender disparity, Raymond said, but in the last decade or two, that has leveled off. At this rate, her university — where just two of the 10 neuroscience faculty members are women — won’t reach the 50-50 mark for assistant professors until 2117.

Gifted female students might get lots of encouragement during their college careers. But at the graduate level, where they are suddenly in a lab trying to push boundaries, self-doubt creeps in, Raymond said. When a project doesn’t go well, a man is likely to say, ‘Give me another,’ while a woman may think, ‘Maybe I’m not cut out for this.’ ”

At Stanford, her female students are “awesome,” Raymond said. “They write beautiful Ph.D. [theses]. They say they love science but just wish it were not so competitive.”

In computer science, there’s been a backslide, she said. Women accounted for about 35 percent of the profession in the mid-1980s, but that number has dropped to about 18 percent.

The image of computer science as nerdy and male, a programmer culture, discourages women, she said. Classrooms with Star Trek posters and highly caffeinated soda cans make them think, ‘That’s not what I am.” Stanford, she said, is among a number of universities trying to change the image of computer science and make it more “jazzy” and appealing to women.

Unconscious bias has nothing to do with the idea that men’s and women’s brains evolved differently because of their different roles — which she scorns. “Nothing cavemen or women did is like programming apps on smartphones,” she said. “At the neurological level, we don’t know what makes one brain better at doing something complicated than another. Any claims about the male brain are wild speculation.”

Implicit association tests are remarkably uniform, Raymond said, despite gender, age or race, and that’s undoubtedly due to the fact that we are all exposed to the same data. Young people have the same biases as old people, and blacks have the same ones as whites.

On the implicit association test on race, for example, people are asked to associate good words and bad words with white and black faces. “On the whole, people associate white faces with good words,” such as “responsible,” “hardworking” or “smart,” she said. And that includes dark-skinned people, although at lower rates.

A University of Colorado psychologist, in a simulation, tested untrained civilians by asking them to shoot at people based on whether they were armed or unarmed. He found people were more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black person and to withhold firing when the target was white.

So, given the influence our unconscious biases can have in how we judge people, what can we do about them?

First, we have to acknowledge that they exist, Raymond said, and then take control of them so they don’t control our behavior. Problems come up when we allow gut reactions to rule. “We need awareness, and institutions need procedures,” she said. “If you have enough time, or procedures, you can overcome them.”

Focusing on data is another step toward eliminating bias. If you’re hiring, do it blind, at least at the initial stages. Set the standards in advance. Be sure to offer women the same benefits you offer men.

“We have to create new habits,” Raymond said.

She recalled her daughter announcing on the playground one day when she was 3: “This is a ship, and I’m a captain. A girl captain.”

Despite all of Raymond’s efforts to shield her daughter from this bias — even changing the genders of heroes in her books — “She still knew she violated the gender stereotype to be the captain.”

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