Our minds are complex, changing, impressionable, simple, fixed things sometimes. Sound like a contradiction? Of course it is. Minds are influenced by a whole range of things throughout their existence, from the culture they are brought up in, to the education they receive, the attitudes of other minds around them, and every little personal experience they have. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of things going on in there that we aren’t aware of.
The truth is, it can be uncomfortable to really examine what goes on in our own heads, to actually see and understand what we hold in our individual collection of synapses and neural pathways. But it’s necessary to see and understand what’s there in order to be mindful of it, in order to take wise action to ensure that we are not letting our biases disadvantage ourselves and those around us.
The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is one method we use at The May Group to do this, both for ourselves and for participants in our unconscious bias and inclusion programs. The IAT uncovers implicit associations we have between concepts, such as between women and career or men and science. It’s a valuable tool to show even the most confidently unprejudiced person that there may be unrecognised connections going on in their mind that influence how they think and act.
When she took the IAT, one of our consultants Hannah Lawson discovered she has a slight preference for ‘European Americans’ over both ‘African Americans’ and ‘Asian Americans’, and a moderate preference for associating female with family over career. For Hannah these results were fairly confronting, as she considered herself not only to be strongly ‘liberal’ in political and social ideologies; but also as someone who made a concerted effort to recognise her privilege, educate herself on the experiences of others, and indeed even made a career change to work directly towards gender equity in the workplace.
Another consultant, Margot Paxman, admits that her reaction when faced with a less-than-ideal result (slight association between African Americans and weapons) was to consider how the test itself influenced her. If you view the Frequently Asked Questions on Harvard’s IAT site, you elicit the common reactions people have to their results, which notably our consultants worked through themselves. “Could the result be a function of the order in which I did the two parts of the test?” “Could the result be a function of handedness or hand-eye coordination?” The final question, when acceptance of the results occurs, is so often; “Does this mean I am prejudiced?”
Thankfully, this test does not display prejudices, which by definition is a conscious negative attitude towards other groups. The purpose of the IAT is to indicate BIAS; which Harvard notes quite frequently for the participants is even “contradictory to what they consciously believe”. The biases that are indicated in the results instead can usually be linked to our upbringing, families, attitudes in our culture and society that subliminally take root in our minds, and “can predict and influence our behaviours without active efforts to be egalitarian”.
While potentially uncomfortable, it’s important to see our results from the IAT as a useful way of understanding more about ourselves, rather than something to get defensive about. Harvard offers a number of suggestions for those who are discouraged by their results to increase efforts to “seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference”. These include but are not limited to; avoiding social and cultural influences that overtly promote negative stereotypes, choosing to read and expose yourself to material and people who counter implicit stereotypes and broaden understanding, and even “actively working to remain alert to the existence of the unwanted implicit preference to make sure that it doesn’t influence your overt behaviour”. A great book that further explores this topic for those that are interested is Blind Spot – Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.
We have no doubt that our work with The May Group will help to shape our future results and ideally the results of our clients, particularly regarding the common association between women and family over women and career – by focusing on how best to support women in their career advancement we plan to leave outdated assumptions in the past.
-Hannah Lawson and Margot Paxman