Translating Implicit Bias from Theory to Practice

Many scholars do their work in the hopes of making both an academic impact, and, when possible, a broader impact, to influence policy, raise public awareness, and change behaviors and practices.

Sociology, including feminist sociology, has long cared about public scholarship that seeks a broader impact on society. What are the different ways of approaching public scholarship? What ideas make it into public conversation? What happens to particular ideas when they go public, such as diversity and inequality? Our paper, recently published in Gender & Society, focuses on the stunning increasing visibility of the concept of implicit bias, a theory about how people can act based on prejudice and stereotypes about social groups without intending to do so.

Implicit bias is, quite simply, one of the most successful cases of an academic concept being translated into practice in recent memory (see Figure 1). Its popularity, from implicit bias trainings cropping up in virtually every industry and their subsequent ban by the Trump administration (a ban rescinded by the Biden administration), to presidential candidate Hilary Clinton using the concept in a presidential debate, to entire industries built around the concept, means you probably have an opinion about implicit bias and its application. Whatever you think about the concept, however, it is a remarkable success story for those seeking both academic recognition as well as broader impact. Given its exceptional academic and public trajectory, we wanted to know more.

Implicit Bias in the ADVANCE Program

One of the programs that has used the concept of implicit bias to promote organizational change is the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program. For the past 20 years, NSF has funded the design and implementation of systemic interventions aimed at increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic STEM careers. Implicit bias became one of the central concepts orienting the program, especially for the evaluation of faculty in hiring and tenure and promotion processes. (It is by no means the only concept – other foci include culture, networking, workload balance, work-life conflict, and mentoring, among others).

We used the ADVANCE program to dive deep into what makes implicit bias such an attractive anchoring concept for institutional change. We found a trade off between how easily it is understood and the possibility of really transformative change. Implicit bias doesn’t sound threatening and so can be used in places feminist ideas do not typically gain traction. But this also limited its potential for systemic organizational change. For example, because implicit bias is demonstrable and relatable (you, yes you, can take the IAT test and see for yourself!), it has convinced those who are skeptical about the existence of gender or racial bias that bias is a real thing (even if they do not consider themselves racist or sexist). Awareness of biases itself, however, is not a structural critique.

Similarly, implicit bias is actionable, and in a way that can also appear impartial. Small changes, such as using rubrics for more transparent evaluation or accountability of individual decision makers (who, through no fault of their own, may unintentionally act with bias), can effect real change within organizations. At the same time, these impartial actions can leave more politically-charged conversations about what excellence means and who has the power to define what merit means, off the table.

Moving Forward

After scientists offer theoretical explanations for gender or racial inequality, they do not have control over what happens to those ideas (see Sarah Ahmed’s work on diversity). We can celebrate the awareness the concept of implicit bias has brought to the structural inequalities in everyday life. But we suggest remaining critical of how the concept has been translated into practice.

The challenge remains: how can we take advantage of a concept’s versatility while also mobilizing its most radical, structural implications? Oppressive stereotypes are so deeply embedded in the structure and culture of our society that they impact everyone, down to their subconscious. For organizations, one step is to increase individual awareness. Further, and perhaps more difficult, steps include identifying and changing biased organizational practices, standards and procedures, as ADVANCE leaders have revealed is possible. Only societal cultural and structural change can possibly address the full extent of the problem revealed by the existence of implicit biases.

Ultimately, simply raising public awareness about the role of bias in inequality is not enough. We need much more work to change the very organizational contexts in which behaviors based on bias can occur to effectively transform organizations. We hope our research helps move us in that direction.

Kathrin Zippel is professor of sociology at Northeastern University. She has published on gender politics and policies in the workplace, social movements, and globalization in the United States and Europe. Her book, Women in Global Science: Advancing Careers Through International Collaboration was published by Stanford University Press. She currently directs a research project on the diffusion of innovative gender equity ideas in the network created by the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program.

Laura K. Nelson is an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she is core faculty at NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, an affiliated faculty at the Network Science Institute, and on the executive committee for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She uses computational methods, principally automated text analysis, to study gender, social movements, culture, and institutions. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Sociological Methods & ResearchPoeticsMobilization: An International Quarterly, and Gender & Society, among others.

COVID-19 Makes Transforming the Academy More Urgent

A full year into quarantines, Zoom-everything, no childcare, and facilitating kids’ education at home, there is reason for concern about the long-term consequences for women in academia.

Within academic STEM fields, where women earn about half of the doctorates but are woefully underrepresented in advanced ranks, the impact may be particularly dramatic. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic directly affect individual women, but also academia itself. The pandemic has amplified inequities within academia and in society more broadly.

Will we recognize these impacts and seize the opportunity to make academia a more inclusive and equitable institution that welcomes the contributions of diverse academic women? If we want the best talent and most innovative research to advance knowledge, we must.

Even before a global pandemic abruptly moved our lives into virtual spaces, women shouldered a greater burden for care work in their families, communities, and workplaces, leaving less time to devote to their scholarship. As the immediate decline in the number of manuscripts submitted to scholarly journals by women demonstrates, the pandemic has exacerbated this inequity.

While some faculty and administrators still insist these are individual problems, the pandemic has confirmed what feminist sociologists have been saying for decades – we have structured our universities to reflect sexist and racist assumptions about who does, and should do, particular kinds of work, and how that work is valued, supported, and rewarded. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how far we are from equity and how easily we can lose ground. 

Faculty worry that administrators will not “let a good crisis go to waste,” as they cut faculty, staff, and academic programs, and reorganize their universities. They also note that many universities have attempted to acknowledge this crisis and responded by extending the time to tenure for faculty and changing the use of teaching evaluations. Some faculty are concerned that these responses may exacerbate rather than alleviate gender inequality. But this does not have to be the scenario.

The Research

My research suggests we are in a critical time that may be a moment for those committed to feminist institutional transformation to push for change. My interviews with feminist sociologists indicate they should be at the decision-making table to steer the response of universities to the pandemic in feminist directions. Why single out feminist sociologists for a central role in shaping policy for a more inclusive academia?

Sociologists are trained to identify and analyze how institutional structures and cultures perpetuate or remediate inequalities. Their expertise can help others to recognize that the expectations, policies, practices, and culture of the university—not characteristics of individuals—maintain inequality.  Feminist sociologists produce knowledge using the tools of their discipline and use that knowledge to inspire, inform, and demand structural and cultural transformation. They combine their disciplinary, methodological, and theoretical expertise with their political commitments to expose the ways these policies, practices, and institutional cultures reflect and reinforce white masculine privilege. This work can help us imagine a transformed institution.

The pandemic has revealed that despite decades of increasing numbers of women and minorities entering the academy, the organizational principles still presume a homogenous faculty composed of heterosexual white men with stay-at-home wives. The faculties have changed but the taken-for-granted assumptions about work and family often do not reflect this reality. Further, we must acknowledge that higher education includes a wide range of institutions serving very different types of students. My interviews with feminist sociologists who work on institutional change suggest that a just academy must reflect and support the lives of the diverse individuals within it. My findings encourage us to consider how our efforts to transform the academy should acknowledge and respond to this broad diversity, rather than impose a one-size-fits-all model of formal recommendations. Feminist sociologists have helped identify principles that could propel changes in policies and practices and re-shape institutional culture.

The current crisis requires change, and universities could use this moment to address the fundamental expectations, policies, practices, and cultures that have long reduced the possibility of meritocracy for women and people of color. Administrators must be aware that decisions made now will have long-term consequences. For example, tenure clock extensions may reduce pressure in the short term, but they will affect life-time salaries and retirement benefits for those who take that extra year now. Women cannot simply “catch up” on their research, and the consequences of the gender gap in manuscript submissions will further exacerbate inequalities.

My research suggests universities would be well served to listen to the experts within their own ranks. Feminist sociologists have the knowledge and skills to identify and analyze organizational problems. And, they have the political commitments that compel them to help change their institutions. While all faculty are tired and over-extended, many feminist sociologists continue to apply their disciplinary expertise to institutional transformation. They are already hard at work documenting and analyzing the effects of the pandemic. Research is revealing disparate experiences for parents and non-parents, with especially dire circumstances for mothers. We must seize this opportunity to devise policy and implement changes in practice, based on recommendations that can push us forward to a more just academy.

Heather Laube is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her research examines how feminist academics navigate their often-conflicting positions and identities as they strive to maintain their feminist ideals, achieve professional success, and transform the academy. She is also interested in the ways innovative faculty mentoring programs can help individuals thrive and contribute to institutional change. You can find Dr. Laube on Twitter @h_laube.