'Recognising implicit
bias is the most
important step’

‘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.

Your research shows that even young children have certain stereotypes about gender and race. When does their implicit bias start to develop?

“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.”