Program aims to educate faculty members about bias

As an Hispanic-serving institution located in a multicultural region of the country, FIU is no stranger to diversity. However, a large melting pot of cultures and beliefs can sometimes give rise to issues about diversity, bias and inclusion. Luckily, the university has recently launched a way to answer those issues.

 The Bystander Leadership Program (BLP) is an interactive educational program for all faculty members that is facilitated by senior faculty members. BLP is run by the Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity (AWED), headed by Suzanna Rose, associate provost. It is a flagship program of FIU ADVANCE, FIU’s institutional transformation project — funded by a five-year, $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2016 to develop innovative organizational change strategies across STEM disciplines.

BLP’s first goal is to raise awareness about the interplay between power, privilege and bias often experienced by women and minorities. This interplay is not particular to FIU, or to higher education, but is considered by many systemic in the workforce across career fields and across countries. One of the first things addressed in the workshop is that implicit bias is not the same thing as explicit prejudice.

In psychology, the old framework for discussing bias is that it is the result of conscious and deliberate thought. The new framework is that bias is a non-conscious and automatic reflection of cultural exposure. All cultures emphasize certain associations, and those associations can become part of our psyche through repeated exposure, whether we agree with them or not. Having unconscious biases does not mean someone is prejudiced, but rather, that unconscious biases can affect our ability to evaluate others fairly or to notice and interpret situations that are unfavorable to women and minorities, even among non-prejudiced people.

Stephen Charman, psychology professor and Bystander Leadership Program facilitator, says that “awareness of one’s own implicit biases is important because implicit biases affect even fair-minded, otherwise non-prejudiced people in ways that they are simply unaware of. Our program hopefully makes people aware of the existence of how these hidden biases may inadvertently affect the way that they evaluate and behave toward other people.”

The Program’s unique second goal is to provide participants with a five-step process and a toolkit of intervention responses and actions that allows them to notice and intervene in instances of bias. Attendees take an active role in intervention scenarios, allowing them to practice the skills taught during the workshop and develop the experience necessary to engage in real-world situations. For example, after a skit is performed, faculty members must think about the best way to respond, and take turns entering the skit as a participant in order to practice their chosen method.

Practicing the skills is crucial, according to Rose. “In order for people to intervene in situations where gender, racial or other biases may be occurring, they must have the skill set and confidence that comes with experience,” she says. “The Bystander Leadership Project places participants in different scenarios and experiments with different types of interventions so that they can be more effective at improving the climate in their department.”