In this section we will look at:
By the end of this section you will:
In the previous section, you explored the structural nature and harm of gender inequality and stereotyping, as well as the causes of female underrepresentation in STEM. You also had a chance to reflect on your own practice and classroom experience in relation to these ideas.
One of the concepts mentioned in the first section was unconscious bias:
“Casual reliance on stereotypes leads to unconscious bias in all areas of girls’ lives. If this is left unchallenged, girls and young women find their cultural straightjackets tightened and they are less likely to say ‘YES’ to STEM. Stereotypes and unconscious bias undermine real choice. We must start to take them seriously.
…the need to challenge pervasive unconscious biases and stereotypes is largely only ever given lip service – if that. Undermining cultural messages and social norms represent invisible roadblocks to the success of girls and women. Such barriers are invisible precisely because they are so deeply embedded.”
But what does ‘unconscious bias’ mean, and what can we do about it?
This section is about exploring the way the brain processes information and makes shortcuts in doing so. We need to devise strategies to interrupt that processing and to prevent it having a negative impact on our behaviour and our decisions. This relates to our behaviour and decisions in every part of our lives, both inside and outside of the classroom.
We are going to:
Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we hold, which, despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviour. Regardless of how fair minded we believe ourselves to be, most people have some degree of unconscious bias. This means that we automatically respond to others (e.g. men and women, people from different racial or ethnic groups) in different ways. These associations are difficult to override, regardless of whether we recognise them to be wrong, because they are deeply ingrained into our thinking and emotions. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
Not all bias is unconscious. Unconscious bias is defined as different from intentional or conscious bias, such as racism, sexism or homophobia. One of the key aspects of unconscious bias is that these biases can and often do run counter or opposite to the stated values of an individual. In this way, unconscious bias can help explain how people who value and support gender equality can still be involved in biased decisions or actions.
Our unconscious biases are particularly powerful because they operate below the level of our conscious minds.
Sigmund Freud knew that the unconscious was far vaster and more powerful than the conscious. He described it as an iceberg: far more under the surface than above. Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who received a Nobel Prize for his work on memory, was once pressed to say how much of the mind works unconsciously; he gave an estimate of 80 to 90%. The specific percentage is probably not important. The point is that experts agree about how powerful our unconscious minds are, and how influential they can be unless we take steps to develop the necessary skill to mitigate their impact.
So how does unconscious bias work for us as individuals?
Unconscious bias is not the preserve of the few - virtually every one of us is biased towards something, somebody, or some group.
Howard Ross, the Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross, a leading US consultancy working in this area, said “our fundamental way of looking at and encountering the world is driven by a hard-wired’ pattern of making unconscious decisions about others based on what feels safe, likeable, valuable and competent” (Ross, 2008)
Ross makes a useful point that our unconscious biases have evolved as a way of distinguishing friend from foe and of keeping ourselves safe from danger. They have in the past been useful to us, in dangerous situations they may continue to be, but how relevant or appropriate are they in a classroom or school environment?
Our unconscious thoughts and interpretations happen much quicker than our conscious ones. Typically they take place below the level of consciousness, about 250 milliseconds before our conscious processes engage.
When we meet someone the information available to us is cognitively overwhelming and we can’t process it fast enough, so instead we routinely and rapidly sort people into groups based on stereotypes, the cultural environment around us and our personal experiences, rather than think of them as unique. This allows us to save time and effort and to give our attention to other tasks or to more novel information.
Think about how quickly you make a decision about who to sit next to on the bus or share a table with in a café or cross the road to avoid. Are you even aware that you are making a decision?
Can you make a list of characteristics which might elicit an unconscious response?
Gender, ethnicity, religion/belief, perceived or known sexual orientation, attractiveness, age, disability, height, weight, clothing, dress, piercings, tattoos, haircut/colour, body language, accent, personality
Categorising people in this way can guide our actions towards others on the unconscious assumption that the individual possesses traits included in the stereotype associated with the group we put them in. Clearly this has implications for the accuracy and fairness of our decision making.
In your learning log, write down a short summary of what you understand unconscious bias to be, then consider and note how an unconscious response might influence your views or actions in a school or classroom environment.
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning psychologist who has undertaken extensive research on human judgement and decision making.
Kahneman makes a distinction between effortless intuition and deliberate reasoning. He has found that what he calls our "System 1"—our automatic, intuitive mind—usually lets us navigate the world easily and successfully. But, when unchecked by "System 2"—our controlled, deliberative, analytical mind—System 1 also leads us to make regular, predictable errors in judgment.
System 1 is in charge of almost everything we do. Most of everything we do is skilled, and skilled activities are largely carried out effortlessly and automatically. That even includes routine conversation; it's very low effort. System 2 is slow and clunky but capable of performing complicated actions that System 1 cannot carry out.
Please answer the following questions in the box below::
2 + 2 =
17 x 24 =
2 + 2 = 4
17 x 24 = 408
When I ask you 2 plus 2, for most people a number comes to mind. That is System 1 working. You didn't have to compute it, you didn't have to do anything deliberate, it just popped out of your associative memory.
However, if I ask 17 times 24, for most people no number comes to mind—you'd have to compute it (408). And if you computed it, you'd be investing effort. Your pupils would get larger, your heart rate would accelerate, and you'd be working. That's System 2.
System 1 is useful because it is quick, often effortless and helps us to make sense and navigate a rapidly changing environment. But, System 1 can sometimes lead us astray when it's unchecked by System 2.
Try and answer the following question as quickly as possible:
A bat and a ball cost £1.10 in total. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Almost everyone reports an initial tendency to answer “10p” because the sum £1.10 separates naturally into £1 and 10p. [The answer is 5p.]
The problem, Kahneman says, is that System 1 is a storyteller. It tells the best stories that it can from the information available, even when the information is sparse or unreliable. We use the information we have as if it is the only information. We don't spend much time saying, "Well, there is much we don't know." We make do with what we do know. So if what we know is based on stereotypes, the views of our parents, authority figures and peers, then that is what our system one will use. System one is where our unconscious biases reside.
We can use system 2 to help us to control system 1 and so to avoid behaving in a way that is in accordance with unconscious bias. But because System 2 takes effort, it is capable of being distracted by other demands. So if we are stressed or anxious, it is more difficult to access System 2.
Assign the following words to either system 1 or system 2 thinking:
|Word:||System 1||System 2|
System 1: implicit, automatic, low effort, large capacity, rapid, default process.
System 2: explicit, controlled, high effort, inhibitory, small capacity, slow.
What might this mean for us in relation to STEM and gender? Note down your thoughts in your learning log.
Moss-Racusin et al (2012) had staff in science faculties in US colleges rate the application of a student for a position as a laboratory manager.
The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or a male (63 times) name.
The staff selectors rated male applicants as significantly more hireable than female applicants. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to male applicants. The gender of the staff selector did not affect responses – both male and female staff exhibited the same bias towards men and against women.
(Moss-Racusin et al, 2012)
There are two possible explanations for the result found in the Moss-Racusin study.
Either: staff in science faculties have been consciously biased and deliberately chose male candidates because they wanted and preferred men.
Or: staff in science faculties have been biased, but they were unaware they were doing it.
Why do you think the participants (including female staff) in the Moss-Racusin study discriminated against female applicants? How might this relate to participation in STEM subjects in schools?
The study found that the staff associated scientists with being male, and therefore were more open to seeing the positives in the male applications. Despite their conscious brain knowing that women can be, and are scientists, their unconscious brain was still making stereotypical associations which impacted on their interpretation of the CV.
Moss-Racusin et al (2012) concluded in the article: “[Scientists] tendency to unintentionally use different standards when assessing women relative to men.”
They also drew wider conclusions about the impact on participation and engagement of women in STEM: “Bias against female undergraduates … undermine[s] meritocratic advancement, to the detriment of research and education.”
How does this relate to gender stereotyping of toys or the way we talk about science in the classroom? Note down your thoughts in your Learning log.
Unconscious bias in schools can lead to differences in achievement, progression and subject choices for male versus female pupils.
As we showed in session 1, stereotypes about female inferiority in mathematics and other STEM subjects are prominent across society and unsurprisingly can lead to unconscious bias among children and adolescents, parents and teachers. International literature and research demonstrates this universal aspect of human nature. Lindberg (2010) reviews the relevant research in this area in relation to maths:
Parents believe that their sons' mathematical ability is higher than their daughters'. In one study, fathers estimated their sons' mathematical “IQ” at 110 on average, and their daughters' at 98; mothers estimated 110 for sons and 104 for daughters (Furnham et al., 2002; see also Frome & Eccles, 1998). Teachers, too, tend to stereotype mathematics as a male domain. In particular, they overrate boys' ability relative to girls' (Li, 1999; but see Helwig, Anderson, & Tindal, 2001).
Lavy and Sand (2015) found that teachers systematically overstate the math and science ability of boys. This leads to poorer test scores for girls, lower progression and completion of advanced maths and science subjects (and vice versa for boys). The teachers (mostly themselves female) did not think they were biased and the effect was larger for girls from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. A different study, Antecol et al (2012), has found the most ‘biased’ teachers were females without maths backgrounds. Other research shows that highly visible students in school classrooms tend to be male, white and from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds. This applies to those students that make themselves more visible via consistent active participation, as well as those that teachers actively call on and regularly select and therefore make more visible themselves. This can apply to science classrooms, as well as non-science classrooms.
Harvard Business School recently developed a ‘Gender Initiative’ to improve outcomes and experiences for female students.
Investigations had found gender discrimination in the Business School’s classrooms, sexism prevalent in the school environment and sizeable achievement and satisfaction gaps between female and male students.
One of the main areas of focus in the Gender Initiative was the learning space - the classroom environment, curriculum and interactions with teaching staff. The curriculum didn’t reflect female experiences in business or foster a sense of belonging among female students. Only 1 in 10 of the case studies produced and used in the Business School featured a female lead role (case studies are one of the main forms of instruction in business schools). Additionally, while class participation is a large component of final grades, teaching was conducted informally and performance assessed after classes, based on the memory of staff. This allows for unconscious bias in who teachers call on, which students actively participate in discussions, and which interactions are remembered and emphasised by staff afterwards.
Harvard Business School has been able to take effective action and improve outcomes by making relatively simple changes, such as increasing the presence of female characters in case studies and using notetakers in classrooms to record and quantify participation.
Consider in your learning log in what ways might unconscious bias have an impact on gender equality in your school and classroom?
We’re going to look now at common ways in which specific types of unconscious bias can influence our behaviour. As you can see, there are a range of different biases that have an influence on our behaviour. Common biases, which will apply to just about everyone in some way, include:
Affinity bias: or ‘in-group bias’ means being biased towards people who make us comfortable or people who we think are like us. The opposite effect is ‘out-group bias’.
Bandwagon effect: is a bias that appears because we often make decisions primarily because other people do, regardless of our own beliefs, which we may ignore or override.
Confirmation bias: we have a natural tendency to be selective in the evidence we listen to and the evidence we disregard, as well as how we interpret evidence, based on stereotypes and our previous opinions and experience.
Salience bias: is our tendency to use the most easily available information or traits when we make a judgment about a person or a situation.
Stereotype threat: is a bias that affects our own behaviour based on other people’s stereotypes rather than our own. It describes the condition where we behave, or feel that we might behave, in a way that confirms a negative stereotype about a group that we belong to.
Have a think about the different types of bias, and in your learning log, note one or two that you think might apply to your behaviour in some situations.
We’re going to focus on two types of unconscious bias in particular, confirmation bias and stereotype threat, as these can play a particularly important role in classroom settings, both for teachers and pupils.
One factor which can exacerbate our stereotypes and undermine decision making is confirmation bias, as we have a natural tendency to be selective in the evidence we listen to and the evidence we disregard.
Confirmation bias works like this: You meet someone and unconsciously categorise or judge them. The stereotypes and societal norms linked to those categories are linked to that individual.
You are more likely to notice and remember their behaviour which is in keeping with the stereotypes/categories into which you have placed them – thereby reinforcing your opinion of them in that category. You are proving yourself to be correct.
You are less likely to notice and remember their behaviour which does not fit within the stereotype or category.
Confirmation bias exists because our brains are designed to think that we are right and to look for information that endorses or confirms our beliefs. So investors and financial managers are often over confident about stocks that they have picked, as they are biased towards seeking out and interpreting evidence in a way that confirms their original, positive assessment and decision to buy the stock.
Once we have made even a small judgement or decision, our brains start looking for evidence to confirm it.
Watch this video for an interesting example of confirmation bias: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=vKA4w2O61Xo
The clip demonstrates that people often try to interpret evidence in a way that confirms their original assessment (confirmation bias), rather than using the information we gather to challenge our assumptions.
How might confirmation bias relate to gender equality or gender stereotypes? How could it affect teachers in a school or classroom environment?
A finding in educational research is that teachers spend a disproportionate (roughly 2/3rds) amount of their time talking to male pupils and are more likely to prompt, praise and encourage male pupils, and give them space during and in front of the class. These differences aren’t intentional, but often the result of confirmation bias. Teachers are aware of gendered stereotypes in relation to assertiveness and performance in certain subjects. Teachers may unconsciously look for or encourage participation from male pupils, and ignore or discount similar signs from female pupils. Crucially, teachers are unaware of what’s happening and believe they are being equal to male and female pupils, until they view their videotaped classes.
This article goes into more detail on a recent study from Israel by Lavy and Sand (2015), which describes a different way in which confirmation bias can lead to differences in performance between girls and boys, and subsequent course choices. These researchers ran an experiment using students, one math test, and two sets of math test scores.
One set of scores were given by the classroom teachers, who obviously knew the children whom they were grading. The second set of scores were from external teachers who did not know if the children they were grading were either boys or girls. So the external teachers were blind to the gender of the children.
The classroom teachers tend to give the girls lower grades in math than the external teachers, and they give the boys higher grades. Now, since the external teachers don't know the gender of the students, this suggests the classroom teachers are biased. They're giving the girls lower math grades than they deserve.
The researchers then tracked the same children into high school and this different treatment and experience discouraged girls from pursuing to high level courses in science and mathematics, and had the opposite effect on boys.
While we are focused on women and STEM, confirmation bias has the same, opposite effect on male pupil performance in reading, arts and language. Teachers grade male pupils more harshly and female pupils more leniently in these subjects, which further biases the subjects pupils think they are good at, and which they then want to study further in.
We have focused so far on the impact that our unconscious biases can have on our behaviour towards other people but they can also impact on perceptions of self, in relation to stereotypes that we think apply to ourselves.
Stereotype threat describes the condition where we behave or feel that we might behave, in a way that confirms a negative stereotype about a group that we belong to. Our knowledge of the stereotype unconsciously influences our behaviour and leads to negative performance.
Stereotype threat is one of the more extensively studied phenomena in psychology and has been shown to influence, for different groups, a diverse range of activities, including: intelligence tests, memory tests, driving, sports and childcare skills.
Stereotype threat works because:
Pennington et al (2016) undertook a systematic literature review of stereotype threat and found that there wasn’t one single mechanism responsible for the negative impact on performance. However, the implicit internalisation of a negative stereotype led to increased anxiety, negative thinking and/or mind-wandering, resulting in reduced cognitive capacity and therefore poorer performance.
The term ‘stereotype threat’ was first used by Steele and Aronson in 1995 who showed in several experiments that black students performed more poorly on standardised tests than white students when their race was emphasised. When race was not emphasised the black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The study showed that academic performance can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.
Stereotype threat can lead to:
How might stereotype threat relate to gender equality or gender stereotypes? How could it affect pupils in a school or classroom environment?
While the most comprehensive recent studies show no gender differences in maths ability or difference in interest in science at a young age, stereotype threat is important because of its strong effect on pupil’s own perceptions, beliefs, performance and selection of activities and environments.
Multiple studies show that parents' and teachers' stereotypes about gender and mathematics predict children's perceptions of their own abilities, regardless of the actual ability of the children. The studies show that these stereotypes and their internalisation by pupils, influence both their performance and course choices.
As early as primary school, girls repeatedly report lower mathematics competence compared to boys, despite no actual difference in ability. Effects of stereotype threat on performance have been demonstrated in children as early as nursery/pre-school.
While we are focused on women and STEM, stereotype threat has the same, opposite effect on male pupil self-perception and attitudes towards studying, which might contribute to some boys’ lower academic performance.
You can take a simple online test to examine unconscious bias in relation to gender and science here https://implicit.harvard.edu/ implicit/ takeatest.html. Record in your learning log any reflections about the results of the test. You might find it helpful to discuss the results with your colleagues.
Unconscious bias is powerful but the good news is that we are not hard-wired to be discriminatory and we can learn to reduce the impact of our biases on our behaviour. There are a number of things we can do to mitigate our biases:
This is very much a starting point. It takes time and commitment to do this and we need to remember that everyone has biases.
Record in your learning log any instances where biases have been discussed in your school or classroom. How well has this worked? If it’s never happened, how do you think it might work?
So what actions can we take to manage the impact of our unconscious biases? This has been a question that has interested a number of psychologists. Some of the techniques that they have been tested and found to be effective are:
Psychologists have done a number of studies that demonstrate how challenging stereotypes and using counter stereotypical information can impact on unconscious biases.
For example, Dasgupta and Greenwald (2001) found that pro-white implicit bias was reduced when participants in their study were given positive examples of black people (Denzel Washington) and infamous white examples, such as Hitler. The study highlights the importance for staff and students of seeing people in roles that they would not stereotypically be seen in.
What might challenging stereotypes look like in a school or classroom environment?
How to challenge stereotypes
We can use context to explain a situation.
This technique looks for institutional or contextual explanations for a particular outcome rather than looking for explanations in a person’s nature. In one study participants were given scenarios and were asked to assign situational explanations to them, rather than dispositional (Stewart et al, 2010). For example women performing less well in a maths test due to cultural barriers rather than innate genetic deficiencies. In subsequent implicit association tests they showed less gender bias than the control group that had not been asked to focus on situational explanations.
How might context be used in relation to gender and STEM subjects like in a school or classroom environment?
Based on what you’ve learned and read, what are the key features of unconscious bias?
You can now attempt Quiz 2.
Before we start, we should acknowledge the discomfort and anxiety that we can have at the thought of talking about our individual biases - we worry about the judgements that others will make and how it will affect our relationships with them and what they might say to others. We worry about using the wrong language and offending people. But if we are to have useful conversations that help us make progress on equality and diversity then we need to create spaces where we can talk about our own and other people’s biases in a way that is respectful and help each of us to recognize the negative impacts of those biases and develop ways of minimising them.
During this session you will reflect on your own biases and may share your thinking with the group if you feel comfortable doing so. There is a chance that someone may be offended or upset with what is said, that’s the risk with this kind of conversation, but if as individuals and as a group we pay attention to how we interact then we can create an environment that allows each of us to learn from what we say and what we hear in a safe and positive way.
Adopting these principles can be a useful way of facilitating that environment:
This section of the course provides an opportunity to reflect, share experience and discuss the ideas that you have encountered so far. How you do this will depend on the number of people in your study group and the time you have available. As experienced educators you will bring your own ideas and experience to bear on how you organise the discussion.
We suggest that you choose one person to facilitate and another to take notes and share action points at the end of the session. You should allow about an hour for the session.
After teaching and discussing the gender equality activities and going through the unconscious bias content, each participant in the study group will have recorded questions and observations in their learning log. If your group is fairly small you may wish to go round the group in turn – each tabling a question and taking time to share perspectives and understanding. In a larger group it’s probably better to pool questions on a flip chart and group together similar issues before starting the discussion. In this case, breaking into subgroups initially would be a good way to ensure that everyone’s views are heard. You might want to split groups by gender in order to explore differences of experience or you might want mixed groups so that groups can share experiences and build understanding.
Suggested questions for discussion:
The aim of this section is to develop a plan for trying out ideas with your pupils. The learning outcomes for pupils are that at the end of the activities they will be able to:
There is one set activity and further suggested outline activities that cover these three learning outcomes and you can download them:
Working as a group (or in subgroups each with a note taker) consider each activity in turn and look at the following questions.
You can now go to Section 3: Building STEM capital in the classroom