Implicit Bias

Implicit Bias is a term we hear a lot of these days. What is it? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?

Andrea Huggenvik, executive director of YWCA, Wausau, spoke at a recent AAUW (American Association of University Women) meeting.

She told us that a bias is an unconscious attribution of qualities belonging to a group. Without thinking, we react a certain way that has been pre-set in our brain. It would come under the category “we’ve always done it this way.”

Implicit bias happens when our learned associations don’t match our values or knowledge. We are not aware of this happening. Without thinking or reflecting, when I hear a loud pickup truck roaring by, I assume the truck is driven by a man. I assume that men can not cook and that women can’t use power tools. I assume that if you are married, you have a husband or wife of the opposite sex. These things are no longer true in our society.

Implicit bias is not a bad thing. There are two pathways in our brain. One allows us to make fast choices, without thinking. We get up in the morning and follow a routine until we are fully awake. Sometimes I drive home from shopping and don’t remember the journey. I drove on automatic pilot.

In order to function in our world, we need to be able to do things automatically. Otherwise we would do nothing.

The other pathway in our brain is the reflective part. This path needs time to think about choices. This path reflects upon past experiences. This pathway engages our values and our higher order thinking.

Andrea gave examples of the media showing implicit bias. In reporting on the flooding of a large city, white people waded through the water and “found” items which they could use. On the other hand, black people were shown wading through the water and were “looting” items. Both actions were identical. Yet the media (reflecting society) used different terms.

In a mass shooting coverage, when the shooter was a white man, he was “mentally ill or a victim of society.” When the shooter was a black man, the media called him a “thug” or a “monster.” Same action, but completely opposite terms were used.

When Andrea googled a picture of Congress, she found a photo of white men in suits. But the reality of the new Congress now includes young women of color.

Why is implicit bias an issue? Why should we care?

This bias affects how we see ourselves and how we treat others. Such bias affects our workplace and law enforcement. We upset people and don’t know why they are upset.

This bias matters because women are more likely to be undertreated in medical situations. People think that women are more emotional and make up their illness. “It’s in their head.”

The wage gap continues. Women make 71 cents to the dollar that men make. Women are less likely to advance in the workplace, particularly at the higher levels of leadership.

We all miss out. Such implicit bias keeps segregation going. Research shows that diverse teams make better choices and are more productive. We miss out on learning other views and widening our world.

What can I do about my implicit bias? We can change ourselves and make systems more open and fair. You can google the Implicit Association Test and know your own biases. Then we can pay attention and combat our biases. Challenge my self and see new things. Look for news sources that are fair and balanced. We can build new pathways in our brain.