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Addressing Implicit Bias in Academia

While many insist that science is a meritocracy, this is often not the experience for certain populations. Who is viewed as the “best candidate” can be influenced by a host of factors unrelated to their qualifications. This phenomenon was the subject of a study published in PNAS that showed that applicants for a lab manager position with male names were viewed more favorably than those with female names despite having identical qualifications.(1) This disparity is the result of implicit bias, which can be defined as “relatively unconscious and automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behavior.”(2) Other studies have also shown that implicit bias is pervasive and strongly influences the success of many underrepresented minorities in academia.


As members of the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society (EE Just), we are passionate about creating an environment that fosters the professional development of biomedical graduate students from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Implicit bias is experienced by many, if not all, of our members as well as underrepresented minorities from other disciplines and academic positions. To increase awareness of this issue and build community across schools, EE Just hosted a campus-wide implicit bias teach-in. The primary goal of this event was to provide a safe space for people from different backgrounds to share personal experiences of implicit bias, validate these experiences and encourage people to reflect on their own biases to avoid acting on them.


The teach-in garnered much interest and support from students and faculty alike and was attended by about 100 participants. A keynote speech was given by Marybeth Gasman, Professor of Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education and Director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, who introduced the topic of implicit bias and shared some of her personal experiences. Graduate and undergraduate students then shared their own experiences of implicit bias in small table discussions facilitated by twelve faculty moderators. As a culminating experience, everyone participated in an art activity inspired by PostSecret,(3) in which people illustrated an experience of implicit bias on one side of a postcard and shared their vision of a diverse and inclusive Penn community on the other side.


Overall, many participants reported enjoying the event and appreciated the opportunity to discuss implicit bias in academia. The leadership team of EE Just all agreed that the event was highly successful, considering that having conversations about bias can be difficult and uncomfortable. Key organizers of the event, Julianne Rieders (4th year CAMB GTV) and Brenda Salantes (4th year CAMB GTV) were impressed by the breadth of people who heard about the event, which included student organizations from other universities and local media. Many felt that hearing an array of voices and perspectives can help us break out of our individual bubbles. CAMB chair Dan Kessler served as one of the faculty moderators and reflected, “The process of hearing and relating to the stories was a real eye-opener for me. I understood that students experienced bias, but to hear it firsthand and feel their painful experience drove home the reality of the situation.”


In the future, we hope to continue facilitating open conversations about implicit bias because it is critical to reflect on and discuss personal experiences, either as perpetrators or targets of implicit bias. Learning how to respond to implicit bias in the moment and how to report these instances are also important next steps. Dan Kessler believes that the faculty also have important roles to play, including “[enhancing] faculty awareness of our own biases, their negative impact on our students, and approaches to minimize this impact. [In addition, being] available to students under all circumstances, and when opportunities arise, [partnering] with students to address these important goals.” Given that this was the first event of its kind facilitated by EE Just, the executive board had several ideas for improvements for future teach-ins. For example, better defined roles for faculty moderators would help keep conversations focused and productive. Additionally, the executive board acknowledged that challenges still persist, including engaging those who may not be interested in having these conversations and ensuring that participants come from diverse backgrounds. For example, the majority of the participants at this first event were women. Thus, it’s imperative to encourage more men and people who are not traditionally underrepresented minorities to participate in these conversations to learn about how implicit bias affects their peers.


1. Moss-Racusin, C.A. et al. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS 109: 16474-16479, Oct 2012.



Photo credit Louisa Shephard ( PennNews




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