Unconscious biases continue to hold back women in medicine, but research shows how to fight them and get closer to true equity and inclusion
Published in Health & Fitness
If you work at a company, university or large organization, you’ve probably sat through a required training session meant to fight gender and racial discrimination in the workplace. Employers increasingly invest in efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion – commonly referred to as DEI policies. Yet research shows these efforts often fail to address the implicit biases that often lead to discrimination.
I am a professor and a physician who has been working in university settings for over 30 years. I also study and speak about discrimination in medicine and science. Like most of my female colleagues, I have personally seen and experienced gender discrimination on many occasions throughout my career.
However, two things seem to have changed in recent years. First, modern training programs are starting to reflect decades of research on effective interventions. Second, I am noticing a gradual shift with people now more interested in actively addressing discrimination and harassment than ever before. Taken together, these changes give me hope that the medical profession is finally making progress on efforts to fight discrimination.
Many institutional policies outline anti-racist and anti-sexist goals, but research shows results have been slow in coming.
In a study I conducted to understand what continues to hold women back in their careers, I interviewed more than 100 men and women in academic medicine, including many in high-powered positions. In my study, dozens of interviewees told me stories of DEI policies that, even with the right intentions, failed to produce good results.
For example, frequently search committees are encouraged to broaden and diversify the pool of candidates for a position. In my study, I found that hiring committees often associate attempts to hire or promote a woman or member of an underrepresented group as “meeting a quota” or “affirmative action,” which the hiring committee sees as an imposition on their ability to choose the best candidates.
A male faculty member I interviewed claimed that a new colleague was hired “because she’s a woman,” even though she was as qualified for the position as other male candidates. Such reactions are part of why this approach, though commonly employed, has not fixed the problem of women getting fewer promotions than men.
It is also clear that blatant sexism is still present. For a study I published in 2021, I was told stories of a male department chair putting a dog leash on the desk of a female co-worker, and a female candidate for a leadership position being criticized by the chair of the search committee for not being “warm and fuzzy”.
Implicit bias is any unconscious negative attitude a person holds against a specific social group. These unconscious biases can affect judgment, decision making and behavior. Implicit bias is often one of the underlying issues that leads to discriminatory practices or harassment that DEI policies are meant to address.
Employee trainings are a staple of organizations’ efforts to meet diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Trainings can take various forms and cover a variety of topics, including implicit bias. These trainings, frequently done online, often “talk at” employees by simply offering information and directives rather than actively engaging them in discussion and analysis.