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bias trainings cropping up in virtually every industry and their subsequent ban by the Trump administration (a ban rescinded by the Biden administration), to presidential candidate Hilary Clinton using the concept in a presidential debate, to entire industries built around the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.