Do you tend to favor people who look like you? Do you feel that men are better fit for certain jobs, while women are better for others? Do you make judgments without understanding why?
Questions like these are the subject of research by Carlee Beth Hawkins, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and researcher with Harvard University’s Project Implicit, an international organization studying attitudes, thoughts and feelings held outside conscious awareness and control.
The Project website, established in 2005, boasts more than one million visits annually by universities, corporations, health care professionals, law firms and others who seek information about biases concerning race, gender, sexual orientation and other topics.
Hawkins will discuss her research at the “Unconscious Bias” luncheon session during the 2018 AAPG Annual Conference and Exhibition in Salt Lake City.
Hawkins, native of a small town in East Central Illinois, said she first encountered bias when she entered university.
“To say that my town lacked diversity is an understatement,” she said. “College introduced me to people who were different from me, and I was filled with both curiosity and discomfort. I didn’t know how to relate outside my bubble.”
Conflicting feelings remained when she began working in services with adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hawkins described having a moment of clarity late at night in a jail cell. She was helping resolve a family conflict between a single mother and her rebellious teenage daughter. The mother wanted her daughter to sit in jail for the night to think about her decisions, hoping that tough love would keep her from repeating the same mistakes she made years earlier.
“The mother told me her story, and I realized in that moment that she and I had grown up in different Americas.” Hawkins said. “I committed my career to understanding prejudice and discrimination.”
She began to study implicit bias in graduate school and pursued her doctoral program working with Brian Nosek, one of the creators of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), an online assessment that asks users to associate words and images and measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unable or unwilling to report.
Hawkins has worked with Project Implicit since 2007, serving as training director and leading workshops throughout the United States.
Diversity in Science
Lauren Birgenheier, University of Utah assistant professor of geology and ACE 2018 technical program chair, met Hawkins at an “Implicit Bias” workshop in late 2017.
“Carlee was engaging and relevant, and the workshop was really educational, even for people who try to keep up with topics related to diversity in the workplace,” she said.
Birgenheier approached the committee and AAPG leadership about including the topic in the program.
“We wanted to highlight the strength of diversity in science and the strength that different perspectives can bring when working with plays,” she said. “We talked to AAPG President Charles Sternbach and President-elect Denise Cox, and they were very supportive of the topic.”
A Fair Shake
Birgenheier said introducing the topic of unconscious bias is important because, regardless of background or our training, all people have attitudes or stereotypes that affect their decisions and actions.
“We are all good, well-meaning people, but even good, well-meaning people have biases. We all have biases, and that is what the workshop addresses,” she said. “It helps us to adopt useful and easy strategies to try to minimize that bias and make sure that everyone is heard, and that we are succeeding in our organizations.”
As a female geoscience professor, Birgenheier is a minority among predominantly male peers. She noted how Hawkins’ workshop helped her to discover her own biases.
“It’s important for me to understand that I have gender biases just from being in our society,” she said. “Even I am someone who may actually value male over female contributions. That’s not what I want to do, so I’ve been really excited about learning practical ways that I can reduce that bias.”
Birgenheier said that Hawkins helped her develop strategies for managing bias at work.
“As a professor I write recommendation letters for students, and it’s well documented that males receive better or more glowing reviews than females with the same credentials,” she said.
Hawkins’ workshop helped Birgenheier find strategies to write balanced letters for recommendation.
“I learned that if you put off (a task) until the last minute, your bias will become stronger, so setting time aside to write a recommendation letter can be really helpful,” she said. “Because I’m someone who trains students who go into the industry, I want to make sure I’m giving them all a fair shake as they go forward.”
Hawkins noted that most people consider themselves objective and unbiased.
“We think we treat people equally; sometimes people even say things like ‘I don’t see race’ or ‘I treat men and women the same.’ Even if we know that biases exist in our culture, we tend to think that we personally do not harbor them. Some of us may realize that we have some biases toward certain groups, but even then, we are often unaware of when and how those biases influence our decisions and behavior.”
She added that when people receive feedback about having said or done something biased, they tend to be defensive, refusing to believe it.
“Our minds are very good at providing reasons why our thoughts and behavior are objective and rational. These compelling reasons lead us to dig in our heels and reinforce our self-concept as objective and unbiased,” she said.
Hawkins suggests an alternative, accepting the fact that all people have biases and that these biases can influence decisions and behavior.
“If we can bring acceptance and humility to our own biases, we can begin to understand what our biases are, and we can start to work on changing those decisions so that our biases may have less of an impact on us,” she said.
Experts disagree on the extent to which individuals’ bias affects their behavior.
A January 2017 article from The Chronicle of Higher Education cited IAT founder Nosek’s writings noting a “very weak overall” connection between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior.
The article cited a review of 499 studies over 20 years involving more than 80,000 participants using the IAT and similar measures. Researchers concluded that “the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought” and that “there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.”
Hawkins cited numerous studies connecting bias to discriminatory behavior, but also recognized that there is a question about to what degree methods like the IAT predict discrimination.
Hawkins noted how experts are working to understand methods’ limitations and on improving measures to assess discriminatory behavior.
“It’s important to note that while implicit bias work has exploded in recent years, the first IAT paper was published just 20 years ago,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
What Not to Do
Regardless of the degree to which implicit bias affects our actions, Hawkins and colleagues agree that mandating diversity training will not help to reduce discrimination.
Experts also agree that compulsory diversity training often backfires, creating defensiveness and resentment among attendees.
A July 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review cited laboratory studies concluding that force-feeding diversity training can activate bias rather than eliminate it. The article cited conclusions drawn from reviewing 30 years of data from 800 U.S. companies.
“We’ve seen that companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics. It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability – the desire to look fair-minded,” authors wrote.
Hawkins agreed that mandatory training tends to be counterproductive, while voluntary training is helpful.
“Diversity training may increase defensiveness in some participants, but learning things that make us uncomfortable can motivate us to change,” she said. “Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.”
Expectations for the Session
Hawkins said she hopes the ACE session will help attendees accept that all people have biases and motivate them to understand their own biases better.
Her presentation includes three primary concepts:
- Much of mental life occurs outside of conscious awareness.
- Implicit thoughts can contradict conscious beliefs.
- Action is shaped by intended and unintended thoughts.
Birgenheier said she hopes luncheon participants will be excited about the topic and that they will want to learn more.
“I want to see what the appetite for this topic is so we can potentially plan future events around this discussion,” she said. “We have received a lot of financial support and enthusiasm for the event,” she said. “It’s been refreshing to find that when you have an exciting topic, people are motivated to get behind the event. There is a lot of support to talk about the issues and highlight the strengths of diversity in the workplace.”
Big Step for AAPG
For Catherine Campbell, ACE 2018 sponsorship chair and senior geologist at Camino Natural Resources, hosting the Unconscious Bias Luncheon is a great step forward for AAPG.
“There is a strong bimodal distribution in our field and communicating across the experience and age gaps can be complicated by unconscious bias,” she said. “I am excited to identify my personal biases and learn techniques to look past them. This opportunity is unique and important for all members of AAPG who are looking to grow personally and professionally.”
The Unconscious Bias Luncheon will be Wednesday, May 23 at 11:30 a.m. in the Salt Palace Convention Center. For more information visit ACE.AAPG.org.