As directed, I place my two index fingers on the ‘E’ and the ‘I’ keys. My fingers tingle with anxiety, a physical discomfort I just never get used to. I take a deep breath and prepare for words to flash across the screen: Mother, Father, Son, Music, Geology, Math, Daughter, Uncle, Literature. In a matter of minutes this trial will be over, and I will know my unconscious thought associations. Would I, could I be gender-biased?
The test I’m taking to find out is part of Project Implicit, a research project that detects unconscious thoughts and feelings about myriad topics. You could a take a test to discover whether or not you have certain associations with skin tone, weight, religion, sexuality, race, age, even gender.
I clicked on the Gender-Science association test, which is composed of four rounds of fast-fire associations.
The first round involves two categories, male and female, which are placed at the top corners of the screen. If a word is male (like uncle, son, father, husband), I had to press the ‘E’ key. If a word was female, I pressed the ‘I’ key. The second round involved linking careers to their disciplines- pressing one key for subjects in the Science discipline and the other for subjects within the Liberal Arts discipline.
Now here was the tricky part- in the third round I had to click ‘E’ for female words and science subjects and ‘I’ for male words and liberal arts subjects.
It was a complete disaster. While I didn’t see a red X on either of the first two rounds, I saw at least four red Xs this time. That’s FOUR mistakes!!! Not only that, but I could tell I was tripping up. It was taking me much longer to respond. And the instructions explicitly asked that I go as fast as possible. Oh, the pressure! I really, really want to be an unbiased person- I WAS a woman in science after all (during my undergraduate studies I doubled majored in Biology and English- I even flirted with applying to a PhD program in Zoology). So what was the holdup?
Much to my shame and horror, this last round is easier. I hate to admit it, but it is. I have to press ‘E’ for male words or science subjects and ‘I’ for female words or liberal arts. As I’m whizzing through the words, I know I’m going faster than I did in round 3.
So I’m not totally in shock when I get my results:
Just disheartened. How could I unconsciously associate men with sciences?
Project Implicit test results of all Gender-Science association test takers as of October 17, 2014.
Turns out, I’m not alone. More than half of test takers either slightly, moderately, or strongly associated men with sciences. And over a quarter of test takers, including me, had a STRONG association between men and sciences.
Dr. Meg Urry of Yale University probably wouldn’t be surprised. I listened to her speak today at the sixth annual Graduate Women In Science and Engineering Fall luncheon. Though she studies supermassive black holes and not the psychology of women in science, she is prominent astronomer who also happens to be a woman. So she might know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field.
She also prepared a ridiculously well-informed presentation that presented lots of information (and data from case studies) about gender-biases in the science.
Dr. Meg Urry delivering a guest lecture at Graduate Women in Science and Engineering’s sixth annual Fall luncheon at Boston University on October 17, 2013.
In her presentation, Dr. Urry pointed out the disparity not only between the numbers of women (versus men) in science, but also between the percentage of women who are earning bachelors degree in science and the percentage of women earning a PhD in those same disciplines.
Physics, for example, had women accounting for 20% of its undergraduates while women made up only 15-18% of the people earning PhDs seven years later (seven years is an appropriate estimate for the time it takes to complete a PhD, though Urry warned it is in an overestimation in some cases and an underestimation in others).
“There is some process that is differentially filtering out the women,” Urry said.
And that something is not a skill set. Astronomy, which requires the same skills to succeed as Physics, has twice the percentage of PhD women.
“It’s about something cultural,” said Urry. There is an unconscious bias or implicit bias toward women in male-dominated fields, she explained.
One problem is that people have lower expectations for women. And notice I say “people,” not men. Women are equally as guilty as men in this regard.
To illustrate this, Urry pointed to a study by Paludi and Bauer who had men and women look at the same academic paper, and asked them to score it. One third of the papers were “authored” by John T. McKay, one third by Joan T. McKay, and the last third by J. T. McKay. Men gave better scores to the paper with the male author. So did women.
It turns out both men and women have different standards for the sexes when it comes to science.
The answer may lie deep in our minds in that area between what we “know” to be true and what actually is true for a given situation. For example, researchers Biernat, Manis, and Nelson gave undergraduates pictures of men and women standing next to an object (for scale) and asked them to judge the heights of those men and women. We know, in general, men have a taller height distribution than women. So the undergraduates found this to be true in the photos as well, even though the men and women were actually all around the same height. The undergraduates “knew” men were taller than women, so that’s what they saw.
“Imagine that we know men are better at science,” said Urry. “We might evaluate people differently if we knew men were better at science.”
This “knowledge” is unconscious, of course. As scientists, and for me as a journalist, objectivity is of the utmost importance.
“We are trained to be objective,” explains Urry. “If we are not objective, we are in some sense a failure in our profession. And I think this is why we are all so defensive about admitting to being biased.”
Defensive is right. A whole arsenal of ‘but …[fill in the blank]’ and ‘not me, because…’ came spilling out of my mind almost immediately. My test results made me very uncomfortable, and that strong association of men with science was not something I was aware of. I mean, I write a blog about WOMEN in science.
Bringing unconscious biases to the forefront of our awareness is one of Project Implicit’s goals. In an email to Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University and one of three scientists founding Project Implicit, I asked why it was important to understand thoughts that are outside of our control. She replied:
If we knew that we had a hidden bodily defect such as a malfunctioning heart valve, would we want to know? I think so. Why? Because that which is hidden and untreated can be bad for us.
It seems to me that the same is true for our minds. And now, we have methods, rudimentary methods for teaching us that we carry around knowledge of which we are unaware, knowledge that can be harmful to ourselves and others if we stick our heads in the sand.
I understand the desire to not want to know, but in so many ways, because of the revelations that present day technologies give us, we are the generation that must face many inconvenient truths. I see it as a matter of a new but simple courage that is being asked of us.
If I can bravely push those ‘but’ and ‘not me’ thoughts aside and be honest with myself, then I can accommodate for my biases. Only by acknowledging them and correcting for them can I take away their power.