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HomeHealthUnconscious biases continue to hold back women in medicine, but research shows...

Unconscious biases continue to hold back women in medicine, but research shows how to combat them and move closer to true equality and inclusion


If you work at a company, university, or large organization, you likely have completed mandatory training designed to combat gender and racial discrimination in the workplace. Employers are increasingly investing in efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion – also known as DEI policies. Yet research often shows these efforts don’t go into the implicit biases which often lead to discrimination.

I am a professor and a doctor who has been working in university settings for more than 30 years. I also study and speak about discrimination in medicine and science. Like it most of my female colleaguesI have seen and experienced personal gender discrimination on many occasions throughout my career.

However, two things seem to have changed in recent years. First, modern training programs are decades of research begin to reflect about effective interventions. Second, I notice a gradual shift where people are now more interested in actively tackling discrimination and harassment than ever before. All in all, these changes give me hope that the medical profession is finally making progress in its efforts to combat discrimination.

Existing policies have not worked

Lots of institutional policies outline anti-racist and anti-sexist goalsbut research shows that there are results got off to a slow start.

In a study I conducted to understand what is still happening hold women back in their careers, I interviewed more than 100 men and women in academic medicine, many of them in senior positions. In my research, dozens of interviewees told me stories of DEI policies that, even with the right intentions, failed to produce good results.

Research shows that despite policies promoting diversity, equality and inclusion, men still do better in medical careers.
Darren Robb/The Image Bank via Getty Images

For example, search committees are regularly encouraged to broaden and diversify the pool of candidates for a position. In my research, I found that hiring committees often associate efforts to hire or promote a woman or member of an underrepresented group with “meeting a quota” or “affirmative action,” which the hiring committee sees as limiting their ability to choose the right person. best candidates.

One male faculty member I interviewed claimed that a new colleague was hired “because she’s a woman,” even though she was just as qualified for the position as other male applicants. Such reactions are part of the reason why this approach, while widely used, has been the problem of women receive fewer promotions than men.

That is also clear blatant sexism is still present. For a study I published in 2021, I heard stories of a male department chair putting a dog leash on a female colleague’s desk, and a female managerial candidate being criticized by the chair of the search committee for not being “warm and fuzzy”..

Training fails to address implicit biases

Implicit bias is any unconscious negative attitude a person has against a particular social group. These unconscious biases can influence judgment, decision-making, and behavior. Implicit bias is often one of the underlying problems that leads to discriminatory practices or harassment that is the target of DEI’s policy.

Employee training is a key component of organizations’ efforts to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Trainings can take different forms and cover a variety of topics, including implicit bias. Often delivered online, these trainings often appeal to employees by simply offering information and guidance rather than actively involving them in discussion and analysis.

Trainings that do not appeal to participants are not very effective reduce implicit bias. In fact, research has shown that some workouts suggest that unconscious bias is an immutable fact of life and imply that can therefore be ignored.

Effective ways to reduce unconscious bias

Describing how bias works and how it affects individuals is an important step in tackling discrimination.

Researchers have been studying how unconscious bias works and how to reduce it since the 1980s. These studies show that unconscious bias a habit that can be broken over time with a clear, consistent and respectful set of evaluations, feedback and follow-ups. During this process, employees become more aware of biases in others, are more likely to view such biases as problematic, and are better able to reduce biases in their own behavior. This type of intervention has been shown to produce measurable increases in the number of female faculties in science and medicine.

A group of people sit in a semicircle watching a woman give a presentation.
Many diversity, equity and inclusion policies rely on training that does not appeal to employees.
Luis Alvarez/Digital Vision via Getty Images

The question is whether the mandatory training and public reporting, which today form the basis of much DEI policy, can produce results comparable to these intensive interventions.

Creating situations or a culture where people can and will share their experiences of harassment and discrimination – without risk of retaliation – can lead to greater awareness of bias among others and clear communication about the negative aspects of this bias.

One interviewee in my study talked about an exercise where the women wrote down their experiences of discrimination and harassment and the men then read the women’s stories. This woman felt that by reciting the experiences of their female colleagues, the men were finally beginning to understand how practices that seemed inclusive and fair were actively harming others.

A changing social environment

Sharing personal experiences of harassment or discrimination with people who are prejudiced is understandably a scary or intimidating thing to do, especially given the history of retaliation or shame. But my recent experiences seem to suggest that the culture in medicine is shifting from one of avoidance to one of involvement.

I recently gave a lecture on gender discrimination on a major cancer conference which brought together researchers from all over the US. I shared the results of my research and my personal experiences with the public. At the end of my presentation, the crowd of men and women applauded—a reaction I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in my 30 years of attending medical conferences.

This enthusiastic response could suggest that people in general are more open to and supportive of women and other underrepresented people who share their own stories of discrimination. With a wealth of research showing that sharing personal experiences with people who are actively listening and engaged is one of the most effective ways to combat unconscious bias, this standing ovation seemed like a hopeful sign of things to come.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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