Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Why So Few? Unconscious Bias I

The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), finds that bias, often unconscious, continues to limit women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields. Research by Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a former AAUW fellow, and her colleagues at Harvard University shows that even individuals who consciously reject negative stereotypes about women in science often still believe that science is better suited to men than women at an unconscious level. These unconscious beliefs or implicit biases may be more powerful than explicitly held beliefs and values simply because we are not aware of them.

Dr. Banaji is a co-developer of the implicit association test (IAT) which is basically a test that measures how we associate different concepts to determine attitudes about different groups. For example the gender-science implicit association test measures the degree to which people associate math and arts with male and female. There are two rounds of categorization. In one round participants hit one key any time a word representing either male or arts is shown on the computer screen. And they hit a different key any time a word representing either female or science is shown. In the second round the pairings are switched and participants hit one key for words representing either male or science and a different key for words representing either female or arts. The difference in average response time when science is paired with male is compared to when science is paired with female to measure the degree of association.

Since the gender-science implicit association test was established in 1998, more than a half million people from around the world have taken it, and more than 70 percent of test takers more readily associated “male” with science and “female” with arts than the reverse. Implicit bias may influence girls’ likelihood of identifying with and participating in math and science and contributes to bias in science and engineering fields in education and the workplace - even among people who support gender equity.

So what can be done to combat these biases? First, you can learn more about your implicit bias by taking the tests at the website shown here. The test is anonymous and free for anyone to take. Second, if you find that you do have biases (and most people do), you can take steps to address them. Simple steps such as actively learning more about female scientists and engineers - by reading, visiting a women in science exhibit, or even attending event like this one can help to give you more accurate information about women in science. Also, having positive images of women in science in your office, classrooms, and homes can help to “reset” your biases.

Note: much of this text is from the AAUW ppt describing highlights of the Why So Few? report.