Organization Spotlight: Unconscious Bias Project

S.T. interviews the Unconcious Bias Project’s Cat Adams on bias in STEM fields and how we can bring about a new, more effective form of “diversity training.”

We all know STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are rife with sexism. It seems like every week, there’s a new story about sexual harassment, or absurdly sexist statements about how women can’t science. And, of course, the many other forms of bias that plague us – racism, homophobia, transphobia – are prevalent in STEM fields too. (And, you know, everywhere.) Sometimes it just feels like everything is terrible and everyone is terrible to each other. But, there are also a lot of awesome people working hard to change things, in STEM and elsewhere. This week, I talked to Cat Adams, a PhD student a UC Berkeley who is fighting biases in STEM fields through The Unconscious Bias Project, which, in her words, is designed to “help people be more awesome to each other.”  You can follow her and her project on facebook and twitter. Our interview is below.

unconscious bias project logo


Before we really start, how do you define unconscious bias? Do any particularly egregious examples come to mind?

I like the definition of unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, from the Kirwan Institute: “Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

Unconscious bias influences practically every choice we make, but I think it is the most harmful among medical professionals, law officials such as judges, and our police force.

The Unconscious Bias project is pretty new. Was there a specific incident or observation that inspired you to begin?

Yes. When I was a first-year PhD at Harvard, my advisor, A.P., was denied tenure.

The decision came as a shock, not only to me, but to all of her students.

A.P.’s work had been featured in the NYTimes and on NPR; she had plenty of research funding, great interdisciplinary publications, numerous professional awards, and a stellar teaching record – she had actually just received Harvard’s highest teaching award ($10,000). She was so popular among undergrads that she featured in Harvard’s freshman orientation video. As both a great scientist and a mother, A.P. was especially admired by female grad students planning to start families.

While we’ll probably never know the exact reason A. P. was denied tenure, I started to do some digging. No one I spoke to knew of a single female professor with children receiving tenure at Harvard in the last seven years.* All the female professors we could find waited to have children until after they had tenure, sometimes in their late 30s. The same was not true at all for male professors.

While there’s no proof unconscious bias was behind Harvard’s decision to deny A. P. tenure, researching the topic gave me a productive outlet for my frustration; after A.P. was denied tenure, I moved schools and started a new PhD program.

Wow. So were you forced to move schools because of this?

Not exactly; there wasn’t really anyone doing what I wanted, and my advisor didn’t know what her timeframe was, [or] when or where she would have a new lab, so she encouraged me to apply for grad school. She did get another job, but she took a year’s sabbatical. The nice thing though is that I’m working with people at Berkeley she had worked with before.

Tell us more about your project; what are you working on now, and what are the more long-term goals?

In brief, our goal is to raise awareness of, and then correct, unconscious bias in STEM fields.

This academic year, we are writing the content for the first version of the website and launching our first half-dozen unconscious bias training sessions on UC Berkeley campus. We plan to incorporate feedback from the Berkeley community back into our second version of the website, and then start promoting the website more on social media.

Eventually, we’d love to form a non-profit that can receive donations and bring about change on a larger scale. The non-profit could also serve as a sort of umbrella organization to help facilitate the formation of student organizations at other universities.

That sounds great! Training sessions sound particularly useful – what does a training session look like? 

We haven’t held any training sessions yet, but I’m really excited about them. So, there’s this group of research scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that has been researching effective training strategies to adjust unconscious bias. It’s completely different from the sort of diversity training schools and offices have been using for the last fifteen or so years; unlike previous training methods, it’s scientifically tested, and people who go through this new training show a reduction in bias lasting at least six months after the initial training. They have shared their presentation materials with us and given us some very useful advice and strategies for teaching individuals interested in adjusting their biases.

Soon, we plan on doing a test-run within our own department. We’ll see how it goes, see if there are any problems, figure out things we shouldn’t say or things we should emphasize more, etc., and then we can work that feedback into our campus-wide sessions. We also want to wait until we have the website up and running, so that we can send people to the website with any questions.

I really want to hear more about this research out of Madison, but first I have a couple more questions about you and your project. Who, besides you, is involved in this project? How did you assemble your group?

About a year ago, I attended the first Expanding Potential conference at Berkeley, hosted by SYNBERC. I presented a poster about the project, and  had some great conversations with attendees. A few people joined then, helping to read primary literature about unconscious bias and outline the website. Some people have had to leave in favor of work responsibility, but others have stayed with us for almost a year now!

The two people who have been working with me since then are fellow graduate-students Leigh Martin and Mitch Thompson. A few months after starting, we co-wrote a grant proposal to finance the website and outreach events. The proposal was approved in May, 2015.

The project has been picking up steam and members ever since!

Have you and your team taken any of the implicit association tests? What kind of results did you get, and how do you feel about them?

Of course! I remember first taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) when I was still a graduate student at Harvard. I scored pretty well on the tests about gender and race, but was disappointed that one test result said I was moderately negatively biased towards overweight individuals.

I had been reading about the latest research on diet and weight gain, and was aware of all sorts of other factors that influence weight: childhood trauma, socio-economic status, and even microbiome. And despite knowing all those things in one part of my brain, I still hadn’t quite processed my social programming to avoid grouping overweight people with negative connotations.

That is so hard to do, to retrain your brain like that. Speaking of IAT, are you guys in any way linked with Project Implicit, the group responsible for the implicit association tests?

We are not with Project Implicit, and don’t have plans to unite with them. We are a group of STEM scientists that like to consider ourselves as social science translators, for a few reasons. Members of STEM will see us as “in-group” members, and be more receptive to a message about unconscious bias given by STEM scientists than a message from social scientists. I really admire the work that Project Implicit is doing, and I think that our group might be able to assist the Project Implicit project most by advocating for them as a separate voice rather than by simply joining forces.

Hmm, interesting, I’ve never thought of the value of being a STEM-only group before. Can you say a little more on that?

There are a lot of reasons for keeping it that way. For one, it’s just a lot easier to speak to what you know. And unconscious bias is a huge problem in STEM – I mean, I know it is everywhere,  but I think it’s particular bad in STEM. There’s a lot of data available for that, too.


Then, there’s our credibility. Scientists with any ties to a company are seen as being in that company’s pocket. If we link in some formal way to project implicit – which is rooted in the social sciences, not STEM – we might not be taken as seriously. It can be valuable to have an outside advocate group associated with the people doing the research, and act as a bridge group to the people that are having a problem with the biases. We are not doing the research but helping to communicate it by being an “in group” for the people hearing the message, more likely to listen/respond.

That makes sense.

There are other reasons, too. STEM is a huge field, and biases don’t work the same way across the board. Depending on the field, the bias is going to affect women, for example, in different ways. Very few women go into geology at the undergrad level – we have this bias against letting young girls play with rocks or get dirty, so they’re rarely encouraged in that direction. But, among the women who do go into geology at the under grad level, there’s very little attrition; a lot of those women continue throughout graduate school etc. On the other hand, lots of women study biology at the undergrad level – more women than men, actually – but the further you go up the ladder, the more women drop off. Since bias isn’t a blanket problem in STEM but a lot of different, nuanced problems, it’s easier to address those differences if we keep our projected focused on STEM.

That is really interesting, and again, something that’s never occurred to me. Back to the Madison research and the training sessions – tell me more! What makes this new approach to diversity training so different from previous approaches?

The main difference is that the more classical diversity training painted the problem as minority groups feeling uncomfortable and othered, but they didn’t get into how people think about diversity or how we can actively change that thinking. The older models actually wound up re-enforcing how different people are without giving people mental tools as to how to think about the ways in which we’re the same.

Another big problem with the older model is that it made a lot of people feel attacked, like they were being accused of doing something wrong. So people would get defensive, and when people feel defensive, they’re often unwilling to learn or correct their behavior.

So like the whole #notallmen phenomenon?


Right; we are all biased, so talking about the patriarchy, painting one group of people as the bad guy, leads to people feeling very defensive. I mean, not that the patriarchy isn’t a problem, but it helps to reframe things in a less loaded way.

Right, that makes sense.

The new training paints unconscious bias as something that isn’t our fault. Our biases comes from all sorts of different things in society, in popular media, the news, the way people around us talk or make little jokes…we don’t have control of it. I think framing the problem that way helps people not feel guilty, and makes them more receptive to learning how to fix their biases. One of the coolest things is a reported increase in caring about the issue; once people realize how prevalent unconscious bias is, how much it hurts people, people are more aware of it, and start to notice problems on a day to day basis.


Another part that I think is important is giving people realistic techniques that they can do that aren’t that hard, that they can learn in a 45 min training and then can start doing immediately. There are so many problems, that even for people who really want to change it can be overwhelming. Learning these tangible techniques is empowering — people can start thinking about fixing things right away, and I think that really gets them excited.

This all sounds great. So far you’ve mostly talked about gender bias; does this training address other forms of bias, like racism and transphobia?


Definitely. Over the course of six training sessions, we hope to address a wide range of issues. The first training session will focus on gender bias and women in STEM; we’ll start by posting fliers around campus with cartoons about bias, studies on women in STEM, examples of microagressions, etc, to get people thinking a couple weeks before holding our first campus-wide training event. Then we plan to develop more materials about different groups – people of color, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, and keep listing events, keep putting up fliers…we hope to be able to have a few of these events before the end of the school year.


I am sure more things will come up as you move along, but so far, has anything surprised you, either positively or negatively, since beginning this project?

If anything, I’ve been surprised at how much positive feedback we’ve had from people. Occasionally when running ideas by my friends, I experience some back-lash, but for the most part the project idea has been very well received.

As long as I avoid any sort of terminology that can be construed as placing blame on certain groups, I think people are surprisingly receptive. Again, I think it helps that our team is made up of men and women, straight and queer people, and people of color, so listeners can usually relate to at least one member.



Overall, what has the experience of running UPB been like so far?

Honestly, it’s been great. I view my role more as more of a facilitator than a leader. Steady streams of new people join the project all the time, bringing different skills and new ideas.

And people talk. Even though the website isn’t live yet, I’ve noticed the topic of unconscious bias come up more frequently around department, which is incredibly gratifying. New members join the meetings with different personal experiences, so the meetings have been a good learning experience for everyone involved, too.

I’m really excited to hear more as your project develops! Is there anything our readers can do right now?


We have a lot of material on our Facebook and Twitter (including this awesome video game) and once our website goes live there will be a lot more – once we’ve gotten further along, we want this to spread to other campuses, so definitely get involved!

*As of 2013

Author: Acro Collective

A collective space for feminist writing, pop culture love, and unabashed geekdom.

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