Is the problem implicit bias or is it gender harassment?


At a conference earlier this year, one of my science heroes was on a discussion panel, and was asked what steps matter most when fixing the gender equity problem in STEM. She answered: “The single most important thing we can do is get men to change their behavior.”

I was feeling a bit chuffed at that moment, as I had recently agreed to give a talk about what men need to do to advance gender equity. Which now is coming up in about a month.

The problem is that this is a 15-minute talk, and I feel like I’ve set myself up to fail. This topic could really could be its own symposium, or its own conference. This goes beyond a blog post, or a journal article, or a book. And this isn’t a field where I conduct research. I think I’m moderately well-read up, but I think my only genuine qualification to give this talk is that I think it’s important, and there aren’t other more qualified men telling other men what changes are necessary.

It seems to me that discussions about Women-in-STEM tend to emphasize advising women how to navigate their careers in a environment that favors men (here’s an example), but really, the problem is that men are creating the headwind for women and putting up obstacles. That’s what really needs to be fixed.

So now I have to flesh out what exactly to put in my talk, beyond what I promised in the abstract. Men need to change their behavior. But what do we have to do? It has to go beyond being well informed and not being a jerk. Progress requires more specific actions that result in tangible changes. What should I be prescribing?

I’m not operating in a vacuum, as I’ve been to a fair number of workshops, seminars, and professional development activities about women in STEM. When it comes down to explicitly stating the nature of the problem, there are two flavors that I’ve commonly seen:

Sometimes, the root issue is implicit bias. The contributions of women in the workplace are often devalued unconsciously. Women’s ideas are not given as much weight, they get paid less, they’re given less professional mentorship, their demeanor is policed unfairly, and so on. These implicit biases often manifest in stereotype threat. Implicit bias is a huge problem, of course.

Other times, folks will say that the fundamental problem is gender harassment. Yes, there is ridiculous level of implicit bias against women, but ultimately the thing that inhibits the recruitment and advancement of women in STEM is that they are subjected to professional harassment on the basis of their gender. This harassment might be facilitated by implicit bias, but oftentimes it is conducted by a bad actor who is aware of their actions.

Is the root problem implicit bias, or is it gender harassment? I think this is a woefully simple question, and focusing on one problem to the exclusion of the other will be less productive. The two feed off one another, and each one facilitates the other. Since this is not a field in which I’m an expert, I do get boggled when I keep hearing that the most important intervention is to educate people to quash implicit bias. And then I turn around, and I hear the most important intervention is to halt gender harassment. I mean, all of these interventions are important, right? How the heck can I talk about everything that men have to do in the span of 15 minutes if I’m going to get specific about what needs to be done?

The new report from the National Academies on Sexual Harassment in Academia provides a lot of guidance. While the report is specifically about sexual harassment, it is very clear about the reality that progress toward equity happens when there is a holistic change in climate. Focusing on policies to create consequences for the worst perpetrators won’t fix the underlying climate that facilities bad behavior. Inequities thrive in unhealthy environments that emphasize competition and elitism over collaboration and shared goals.

So, I do have some idea of what I need to say. Men need to change the culture of their departments, their universities, their academic societies, their labs, and their classrooms. How should we go about these culture changes? I guess you’ll have to show up to my talk, after I get this sorted out. Perhaps I’ll post a synopsis on here.


3 thoughts on “Is the problem implicit bias or is it gender harassment?

  1. The answer to your title question is, “Yes.” Both-and. Equity of opportunity in science will require a huge cultural shift, and the culture of academia is pretty entrenched – it is 1,000 years old, after all. One question to ask is, “What behavior gets rewarded? What gets punished? How can we change that reward/punishment structure to get the behavior we want?”

  2. The root cause is ego. When people expand their horizon beyond their own self and whatever they have cathected in to it, nearly all human problems of relating and cooperating go away. If we had just taken the Buddha’s advice (or Socrates’, or Lao Tzu, or…) 2500 years ago, we would probably be in other galaxies by now.

Leave a Reply