‘I’m Not Biased’ Is Likely a Lie
If someone accused me of being biased toward a particular race or gender, I would certainly disagree, but I would be 100% wrong. Everyone—including veterinary professionals—has unconscious biases (ie, biases they are unaware of) that impact their decisions and judgments every day. Thus, veterinary team members need to examine and overcome the influence these biases have on decision-making to ensure their practice is a fair workplace.
Originally, biases likely were survival mechanisms made by associations (eg, running from a stalking predator, avoiding a poisonous plant that killed a family member) that became instinctual.
Today, people think of biases as “personal and sometimes unreasoned judgments” that influence opinions.1 For example, social psychologists have recognized that people’s brains automatically compartmentalize and categorize others based on their appearance, and one study showed that 6-month-old children could categorize people by gender and race.2 Cool facts, but no big deal?
Actually, it is a big deal. Researchers also found that prekindergarten children use racial and gender groupings to include and exclude other children and exert power in their social groups.3 Such biases, formed at a young age, are often carried subconsciously through life.
Biases are mental shortcuts—based on subconscious criteria—that cause people to treat others differently. People may think they are being objective or fair, but when the shortcuts lead to judging a team member or colleague unfairly, the repercussions can be hobbling and career-altering. For example, unconscious gender biases can lead to female team members being described as too bossy or demanding, whereas male colleagues exhibiting the same language and behavior would not be described that way. Because female team members are typically expected to be nice, they may be judged as harsh when they simply communicate directly.
To become more fair and unbiased, self-assessment of thoughts and attitudes is necessary. Training programs are available and easily accessible (eg, Facebook’s Managing Bias Modules, which can be watched individually or by the whole team for group discussion). (See Resource.)
The Implicit Association Test was developed in 1995 to measure people’s attitudes and associations. Project Implicit, a nonprofit that endeavors to “educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the internet” was founded by the same group in 1998.4 The organization’s computerized tests present words and images, and participants are required to choose the word that best fits the image.
The Project Implicit website currently includes 13 tests, each measuring preferences for one group over another. The gender association and race association tests are 2 examples.
- The gender association test assesses participants’ associations between females and science or liberal arts terms versus males and science or liberal arts terms. This test shows that more people associate females with family and liberal arts and males with career and science.4
- The race association test measures the participants’ association of “good” or “bad” terms with images of light- or dark-skinned people. When the test is completed, results show how strongly the participant tends to prefer one race over another. The results also reflect how quickly the judgments are made and measure attitude or association toward a particular group (eg, race, gender, age, body size). Historically, most people automatically prefer people who are thin versus obese, young versus old, and light-skinned versus dark- skinned.
An internationally recognized female HR leader realized she was biased against other women leaders and developed the “Flip It to Test It” method to help recognize and correct biases.5
Flip It to Test It Example
You realize you are describing a female team member’s actions as assertive or bossy. Take these steps to determine if you are influenced by your unconscious bias.
- Mentally flip to a male team member and picture him doing the same action.
- Ask yourself, Would I describe his actions the same way?
- Recognize and correct your bias if the answer is No.
- Acknowledge you are making different assumptions about the same behaviors according to gender and realign your thinking.5
Awareness of biases will reveal that different descriptive terms are often used for the same traits (eg, a male veterinarian may be described as assertive and a strong leader; a female veterinarian exhibiting the same behaviors may be called bossy or bitchy). Female veterinarians are usually expected to be caring and emotionally supportive of their team members, whereas male veterinarians are expected to act matter-of-factly and take charge. Recognizing biases is critical in many practice areas (eg, for managers to make fair assessments during team member performance evaluations).
In practice, every team member should work to be aware of his or her biases, understand how they affect his or her decisions, and help create a workplace where the whole team is treated equally and fairly.
1Everyone has biases; make sure team members are aware of their own biases and how these thought patterns affect behavior.
2Have each team member take one of the available assessments to become familiar with his or her unconscious biases; this will help team members change their actions and can help create a fair work environment.