When you type CEO, CFO OR CTO in your textbox on your iPhone, notice what comes up. It is an emoji of a man in a suit. Shocking, isn’t it, that this sexism exists? Even seemingly innocuous things as an emoji can reinforce these gendered stereotypes and demonstrate the structural sexism inherent in our society. However, most of us wouldn’t even notice these subtle stereotypes in these emojis unless we are looking for one that represents us. It is a vicious cycle. The hidden biases and stereotypes feed into such designs, and these images, in turn, propagate such biases.
Implicit Bias as a novel concept was first introduced in a paper of 2006, where it was introduced as “the new science of unconscious mental processes that has a substantial bearing on discrimination law”, and refuted the longstanding belief that humans are guided solely by explicit beliefs and by their conscious intentions.
Unconscious biases are everywhere. From the neighborhood that we choose, the close friends that we have, to the people we date. Developments in neuroscience now demonstrate that many biases are formed throughout life and held at the subconscious level, mainly through societal and parental conditioning. We gather millions of bits of information and our brain processes that information in a certain way – unconsciously categorizing and formatting it into familiar patterns. Though most of us have difficulty accepting or acknowledging it, we all do it. Gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, body size, profession etc., all influence the assessments that we make of people and form the basis of our relationship with others, and the world at large.
A google image search ‘thinks’ that more than 90% of professors are white men. Yes, there is a huge gender disparity with only about 25% of women on a professorial level, but this is not only statistically inaccurate, but it also demonstrates the inherent bias in the algorithm itself. A study has shown that an AI algorithm learned to associate women with images of a kitchen, learning from and reviewing more than 100,000 images from around the internet. As it carried out its learning, it was noticed that its biased assumptions became even stronger than that shown by the dataset, so in the end, the results were not merely replicating the inherent bias in the images that had been presented to it, but also amplifying it.
A Yale University study found that male and female scientists, both trained to be objective, were more likely to hire men, and consider them more competent than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women. Other research has shown that a science faculty rated male applicants for a laboratory manager position as significantly more competent and hireable than female applicants. Faculty also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. When this was explicitly pointed out to them, the faculty members were often shocked, as they hadn’t realized their own internalized biases.
In a New York Times article, Sendhil Mullainathan wrote about a study that he had co-authored in 2003. In this study, Sendhil and Marianne Bertrand, at the University of Chicago, mailed thousands of identical resumes to employers with job openings and measured which ones were called back for interviews. They randomly used stereotypically African-American names (such as “Jamal”) on some and stereotypically white names (like “Brendan”) on others. They were shocked to find that roughly 50 percent were more likely to result in a call back for an interview if it had a “white” name. Because the résumés were statistically identical, any differences in outcomes could be attributed only to the factor we manipulated: the name.
I decided to check this for myself, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2015, while looking for a new academic position, I applied for 12 vacancies, identical in nature, at the same salary scale, and in similar kinds of academic departments. I sent the same resume to all these places, but on six of these, I used my maiden surname that I use professionally, which is clearly a foreign name, while on other five, I used my double-barrelled surname combining my husband’s surname (a very European surname) with mine, that I took on after getting married. I received call back for interviews from all the six places where I had used the double-barrelled surname, while from only 1 of the 6 places where I had just used my own Indian surname. Clearly, this is a small dataset, and other variables are obviously in play, but perhaps the results do hint at something. Was my anglicized surname giving me more professional respectability, and why? On each occasion, I received the names of the members of the recruitment committee. A quick survey of the University websites revealed that all recruitment committees were white. It is therefore highly likely that they were choosing people who sounded like themselves, and it is likely they are doing so without being explicitly prejudiced against foreigners in any way.
This is what confirmation bias is, where people are more likely to choose or associate positive qualities to people who look or sound or seem more like themselves or belong to the same social and ethnic group as their own. This process of unconscious bias comes from the previous socialization. By working in a predominantly white industry, the faculty members on the hiring committee have developed an unconscious bias which favors people who sound like them. This bias happens in a split-second, so while to an outsider, the bias may be evident, the one holding this bias may or may not be doing so intentionally, due to the nature of how the brain processes, identifies and categorizes information.
Even when we say that we are very open-minded and not prejudiced, it is clear these biases still creep up on us. This is why we need to examine our biases and be mindful of our hidden prejudices and the way they manifest themselves in words and actions.