bias is the most
‘We can’t ask people not to be human’
Judi Mesman is Professor of Diversity in Parenting and Development at Leiden University. Her research focuses on how children learn gender and racial stereotypes. “Over the years, children slowly start to build stereotypes and implicit bias.” She also knows from personal experience that even if you are aware of your implicit bias as an adult, it remains a struggle to challenge it.
“At six months old, infants already start to categorise the people they meet in male and female categories, distinguishing them by the sound of their voices, facial features, facial hair and physical build. There are no values attached to the categories yet; they are merely filled with objective observations. But as children get older, their experiences and the information they receive in their daily lives will fill the categories with labels. For example, in most Dutch families the female category will likely be filled with “the one who feeds me” and “the one who puts me to bed”, while the male category is more likely to be filled with “boisterous play” and “the one who works at an office”. Over the years, children slowly fill their categories and start to build stereotypes. With this comes implicit bias; the expectation that every male or female they will meet will share the same characteristics they know from their categories.”
“I’m afraid not; it’s the human condition and we can’t ask people not to be human. We all have implicit bias and we all form stereotypes. And they serve a purpose: we have them so we don’t have to form a new opinion every single time we encounter a novelty. We are cognitive misers, or as we say in Dutch ‘cognitieve vrekken’. We try not to overload our brain and that’s why we develop categories. So whenever we meet a new male, we immediately have certain expectations about him based on the characteristics that make up our ‘male’ category.
However, what we can do, is to be aware of our implicit bias. We can acknowledge its existence, wonder in what ways it influences us and make sure we put in some extra procedures or checks so that we act in an unbiased way. I think recognising implicit bias is the most important step. And if people don’t believe it exists, they need to be shown the facts. All the research has been done; we live in a world full of inequalities and they are being perpetuated partly due to implicit bias.”
“Well… Let me tell you an anecdote: last month I went to the tailor’s to pick up a dress. When I was there, I heard the tailor say to the woman in front of me: “Are you here to pick up the toga?” And my very first thought was: “Oh, I wonder if her husband works at our university?” The realisation of my bias kicked in a millisecond later. And of course it turned out she was a judge and it was her own toga… So even for me, a female professor researching implicit bias, it’s sometimes still a struggle.”
“Changes in the environment can influence implicit bias. If you’re in an environment with many female professors, for example, it is very likely that the categories you have for ‘professor’ and ‘female’ will change somewhat. This is why imagery and the way people are portrayed in academia are hugely important for how students see themselves. Think about it: what are the odds you see yourself working in a certain field of expertise if every student and teacher you meet are from another gender or race?”
Are you implicitly biased?
“I have seen people that were rather frustrated with their test results.” Jochem Spaans was in charge of the computers on which participants of the symposium took the Harvard Implicit Association Tests. These tests measure one’s implicit bias about gender, skin tone, race, religion or sexuality. Spaans: “The test measures the strength of associations between concepts such as black people, gay people, and evaluations like good and bad, or stereotypes like athletic, clumsy. The results can be quite shocking if you discover you have an implicit bias you don’t want to have.”
Student Kyra Romero is from Spain and did the implicit bias test on gender. She scored neutral: no implicit bias. “I know the media is often emphasizing differences between men and women. I saw a magazine stand in a Dutch supermarket of which one half was blue – for men – filled with advertisements for beer and BBQs and the other half was pink with advertisements about baking cupcakes. In Holland I encounter these kinds of stereotypes more frequently than in Spain.”
Click here to take the Harvard Implicit Association test.