Picture a doctor operating on a patient, and a nurse administering care. What gender did you attribute to each role? Even if you believe strongly in gender equality, chances are you pictured the doctor as a man and the nurse as a woman. That’s because we’re all subject to unconscious biases, or the implicit stereotypes and prejudices that influence how we view individuals and groups of people, including the characteristics we expect them to have. “We bathe in the society we live in, like dumplings in soup, and this gives rise to unconscious biases,” says Siara Isaac, a lecturer and scientist at EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN).
To make people more aware of their unconscious biases – and how these biases affect their social interactions – Isaac introduced a Micro-Ethics for Project Teams workshop three years ago. “The idea for the workshop came from a personal goal I had to better understand my own biases,” says Isaac, who also works as a teaching advisor at the Teaching support center (CAPE). “After speaking about the issue with Roland Tormey” – the head of CAPE– “we thought this kind of training would be useful at EPFL. The School supported our initiative. Our workshop is intended mainly for students in MAKE projects, but anyone can participate.”
First, spot the problem
The workshop is given every spring and fall semester and – based on a recent study appearing in Science and Engineering Ethics – has proven to be effective. Participants were surveyed a few months after completing the workshop, and 71% of them said they had become more aware of their unconscious biases, 84% felt they were better equipped to recognize prejudiced things they see and hear around them, 69% said they had changed some aspects of their thinking or behavior, and 62% reported using proactive strategies to make team discussions and decision-making fairer.
We bathe in the society we live in, like dumplings in soup, and this gives rise to unconscious biases.
“It was incredible to see the extent to which we react unconsciously in ways that don’t match our thoughts and beliefs,” says Anita Manzolini, an EPFL student who took part in the workshop. “These reactions stem from information and behaviors that have been forged by our culture and society. In the workshop, I learned that our initial reaction to something isn’t always consistent with what we believe in.”
An insidious issue
Unconscious biases are linked to the emotions that influence our decision-making and group dynamics. The biases are known to be one of the main reasons why there’s so little diversity in engineering programs at universities. Studies have shown these biases foster a discriminatory environment in which women and minorities have higher failure and dropout rates. “Our goal is to give students the tools to drive cultural change,” says Isaac.
It was incredible to see the extent to which we react unconsciously in ways that don’t match our thoughts and beliefs.
An EPFL survey on harassment, violence and discrimination conducted in 2021 found that 44% of female respondents had experienced inappropriate or derogatory comments, and nearly 25% had experienced unwanted physical contact (this figure rises to one-third for female students). “The problem with unconscious biases is you can’t see them,” says Isaac. “They’re very subtle and often run counter to what people say they believe in. They’re instilled in us, and they tend to show up when we’re stressed or have to make decisions quickly.”
The field of engineering isn’t immune to societal and ethical influences, even though it’s a science that tries to be as objective as possible.
So the first step is to draw people’s attention to their own biases. In Isaac’s workshop, participants are asked to complete an implicit association test that identifies their hidden stereotypes and prejudices. Then participants are taught strategies for working in teams in a more inclusive manner, and divided into groups where they can practice applying the strategies. An observer watches how the members interact and make decisions, along with any implicit stereotypes that emerge. The exercise ends with a group debriefing.
“The field of engineering isn’t immune to societal and ethical influences, even though it’s a science that tries to be as objective as possible,” says Andréa Montant, another EPFL student who took part in the workshop. “I learned that we should take the broader context into account when developing new technology, and that we should think about all the different kinds of people who may one day use it. Another factor to consider is project teamwork – how teams are managed and ways to address misunderstandings that arise between people from different backgrounds.”
Watch this video for an example of why it’s important to consider user diversity when developing new technology.
Make it awkward
At the end of the workshop, participants engage in play a role-playing game where they learn methods for responding to discriminatory comments and behavior. Isaac explains: “The game is based on things people told me they’ve experienced personally. I think everyone has either been the target of or witnessed inappropriate conduct but didn’t know how to respond on the spot. It’s not easy and takes practice. To help participants, I give them a set of cards describing many different ways to react.”
One way of reacting is to “make it awkward,” or to turn the tables by making an inappropriate comment embarrassing for the person who said it. This can be done by explaining your point of view, stating your values, affirming your boundaries or asking the person to think carefully about what he or she just said. “I’ve always been someone who doesn’t let such comments and behavior slide, whether they’re addressed to me or to someone else,” says Manzolini. “But what changed with the workshop is that I learned new methods. For example, I recently tried out one method – stating how a discriminatory comment made me feel – and it worked really well. I’d never done that before.”
Given that we’re all subject to unconscious biases, it’s also important to know what to do if you yourself say or do something unsuitable: you should recognize your mistake, take responsibility for it and state your intention to change. Sound easy? It is – but it may take some practice.