Fighting implicit gender bias


Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a partner at Hall Prangle & Schoonveld. The head of the employment law group and member of the commercial litigation group, she is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issue pertaining to women in the workplace.

November 2016

While this may be hard to believe, it is likely that we all, female or male, have been guilty of gender bias in some form.

It may have demonstrated itself in subtle ways, such as whom we gave an assignment to or the words we used in a performance evaluation. The clincher is that we likely did these things not out of any intentional desire to discriminate but based on beliefs that we did not even know we had.

I recently participated in a thought-provoking panel discussion on implicit bias — a topic that unfortunately does not receive enough attention. Implicit bias refers to unconscious and unintentional prejudices and stereotypes that affect decision-making and actions. It is distinct from explicit bias, which is intentional and in line with conscious belief systems.

It is humbling to learn that we all have implicit bias, regardless of our conscious belief systems. Implicit bias begins to form early in life and originates from a variety of different sources including the media, family, friends and the social and cultural groups to which we belong. Such unconscious prejudices may be based on sex, race, religion, age, etc.

Because implicit bias is not necessarily aligned with our conscious belief systems, even lifelong advocates of civil rights can have implicit bias. For example, you can be an advocate for the equality of the sexes while also unconsciously harboring the belief that women make poor leaders.

These unconscious associations result from how our brains process information. Our brains tend to make quick associations to assist us in navigating the world around us. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing but it can be when these associations are based on stereotypes and prejudice.

How does implicit bias affect us in the legal profession? It can affect whom we hire, promote and place in positions of power. It also can affect the administration of the justice system at every level.

For those of you who are skeptical about whether you could be someone who has implicit bias, there are tools that you can use to uncover your implicit associations. One of these tools is the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The IAT is designed to bypass conscious intentions and uncover unconscious bias. It is available online. My guess is that you will be surprised and humbled by what you uncover.

The point of using one of these tools is to become aware of stereotypical and prejudicial associations so you can take mindful action to correct them. The goal is not to feel guilty, defensive or shamed.

The good news is that implicit bias is malleable and can be changed with proper motivation. The following are some techniques that researchers have identified as useful tools for de-biasing on both an individual and organizational level.

  • Education. We cannot fix a problem that we do not know exists. This begins by becoming aware of our unconscious associations so we can correct them.
  • Contact. Prejudice and stereotypes can be reduced by meaningful interaction with different groups. This exposure creates new associations which replace previously held incompatible unconscious biases.
  • Positive exemplars. This involves surrounding ourselves with positive role models. If you have an unconscious bias against women in power, surround yourself with female leaders.
  • Perspective-taking. When we take the viewpoint of someone else and are able to articulate his or her position, we can begin to understand our similarities.
  • Deliberative thinking. This requires us to put more intentional thought into our decision-making and actions. When decisions are made quickly, we tend to rely on unconscious associations.
  • Accountability. When we think that we may have to explain our decisions, we tend to be more accountable and act in unbiased ways.

The American Bar Association’s Implicit Bias Task Force has put together useful materials on this subject.

While it may be easier to point the finger at those who have overt bias and blame sexism or other discrimination on them, it is important for us all to look within ourselves and examine how we possibly contribute to the problem. Only then will we discover what we can do to truly effect change.