What do you do when the people studying gender biases find out they’re actually biased themselves? Shake your head in confusion? Or take unconscious gender bias more seriously?
And the studies do agree that implicit gender bias is widespread and insidious. It is essentially unconscious prejudice, as illustrated by studies in which experimental subjects receive resumes that are identical except that some have men’s names and some have women’s. Subjects rate the men’s resumes higher: they consider them more experienced and competent, are more likely to hire them, and would pay them more than the women. Similar studies have found the same results for racial minorities.
These studies have real-life implications. While people scratch their heads over the persistence of the glass ceiling, implicit bias offers one obvious explanation: decision-makers who believe they are making promotion and compensation decisions objectively are actually motivated by prejudice they are not even aware of. This is illegal gender discrimination.
The irony is that the very researchers who experiment on implicit bias fall victim to it themselves. Yale News reports on an experiment conducted by Professor Jo Handelsman:
Yale University researchers asked 127 scientists to review a job application of identically qualified male and female students and found that the faculty members – both men and women – consistently scored a male candidate higher on a number of criteria such as competency and were more likely to hire the male.
While Handelsman wasn’t surprised, many scientists were, because they believe their training to be objective had eradicated implicit biases. If professionally objective individuals are unconsciously prejudiced, what hope do the rest of us have?
I summarized the theory behind implicit bias in an article in Forbes:
[P]eople tend to think in terms of “in groups” and “out groups.” My “in group” is the group of people who are like me in salient ways such as gender, race, religion, age, educational background, profession, family status, etc. I tend to attribute more positive characteristics to members of the in group and more negative characteristics to members of the out group, who are unlike me. … The bias is unconscious.
So what can be done? If the prejudice in favor of one’s in group is unconscious, common interventions like diversity trainings aren’t going to eradicate it. One technique that might do the job: quotas. Forcing managers to hire or promote the best woman in the pool, even if their implicit bias causes them to underrate her and prefer a man, would counteract the effect that bias has of maintaining the wage gap and artificially depressing the number of women in high positions.
Quotas, unfortunately, are a complicated and imperfect solution of questionable legality. How many women should a company be required to promote? Should the number reflect the number of working women in the local population, or the number of local women with the minimum qualifications for the job, or the number of women who apply for a position?
A better answer might lie with the scientists: objectivity. In hiring and promotion situations, companies can require decision-makers to follow checklists or flowcharts of objective criteria that could help them bypass their implicit biases. Accountability for decision-makers is also important: if they hire or promote more men than women, that result should be examined and there should be consequences if it results from bias.
It will take more than checklists to eliminate implicit bias from an entire society’s thinking. But getting women into higher positions and paying them a fair wage could be an important step because it would create more examples of successful women that may help convince people at a deep mental level that female candidates are just as likely to be qualified and worthy of hiring and promotion as men.
You can test your own implicit bias at Project Implicit, which offers the Implicit Association Test to demonstrate “the conscious-unconscious divergences” in our thinking.