Interrupting Bias in Academic Settings

What (if anything) would you do or say?

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You overhear a faculty member complain that Serena is too abrasive. Nobody is going to want to work with her unless she learns to tone it down.

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An underrepresented student comes to you and complains that some students have made general demeaning comments related to gender, race, and/or other groups during lab. The student is uncomfortable but doesn’t want you to intervene directly as people might find out who reported it.

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While standing at the buffet at a department-catered event, you overhear someone ask a colleague of color for more coffee.

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In the capstone course, a student group decides to “divide and conquer.” They suggest that the lone woman in the group take the role of communicating with the client.

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In lecture, the instructor announces to the class that he is going to use cosmetic and fashion examples to create an inclusive climate for women.

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During a meeting, a faculty member says, “Yeah, we really do need to bring in more female students and faculty. They just bring a different perspective and skill set. And hey, it would make this a more civilized place – we men just behave better when women are around.”

You recommend a student for a research experience with one of your colleagues, and get the response, “I’m not sure she’s the right fit. But I think she’d make a great TA.”

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This class typically includes spirited, sometimes hostile, discussion and debate. The instructor notices that Janelle is consistently quiet during these discussions and has suggested that maybe she’s just not cut out for CS.

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You hear someone say that there’s been a push to hire more women (or other underrepresented groups) and that they are being hired over men or other groups, even when not as qualified.

Should You Intervene? Some Benefits and Costs:

  • There can be benefits and costs to intervening, especially when considering clear status and power differences in relationships. For example, it can be more costly to confront someone more powerful. There might be less cost when intervening with a student than with a professor who outranks you, so different strategies may be needed in these different situations.
  • Not intervening can lead to “rumination” (repeatedly reflecting on and regretting the inaction), which can have physical, emotional, and job-related effects for bystanders.
  • Benefits of intervening include reducing the harm experienced, reducing future bias, promoting equity, shifting norms, and increasing the bystander’s self-esteem and positive affect.

Want to learn more about what makes these statements problematic?

Check out the critical listening guide for a social science perspective.

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Before You Act, Assess the Situation by Asking Yourself:

  • Is it bias?

  • Is it important to address?

  • Should I interrupt now?

  • Should I take the person aside later or address this issue at a later time?

  • Is acting too costly for me or someone else?

  • What is stopping me from intervening?

  • What could you, anyone in the scenario, or the organization do to prevent future instances?

Consider How Your Relationships and Roles Affect How You Intervene:

  • What kind of relationship do I have with the people in the scenario? Do I know them well or not and how does that influence what I could or could not say/do?

  • How does my role or status in my team or in my organization influence what I could or could not say/do?

  • How might my gender, race (or other identities) influence what I could or could not say/do?

Some Possible Ways to Intervene:

  • Ask a question.

  • Avoid accusations and instead invite clarification (E.g., “what do you mean by that?”)

  • Arouse dissonance: people don’t like to be inconsistent. E.g., “I’m surprised you would say something like that, considering how supportive you are of women in computing.”

  • “Pivot”: this is a way of not confronting directly, but letting people know they made a mistake in a socially graceful way. E.g., If someone thinks that a colleague is a clerical worker, walk up and say, “Hi, have you met our new assistant professor?” Or If someone is interrupting someone, say “I think Jamie had a thought she wanted to finish?”

  • Use humor (when appropriate for the situation or your relationship with a colleague/student)

It’s important to practice confronting bias. Bystanders are more likely to say or do something to confront bias when they have done so. Most people do not have experience or training on confronting bias.