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'I learned that I have the power to diffuse bias when it rears its head'

'I learned that I have the power to diffuse bias when it rears its head'

A professor participates in a unique workshop that provides him with the tools to build a more inclusive environment.

July 16, 2019 at 2:02pm

This article is part of FIU Magazine's summer issue devoted to "Voices of the Community," which features the stories of faculty, alumni and students in their own words. 

By Timothy Page

A female Ph.D. candidate cannot attend research conferences because her peers are all males and the faculty sponsor lacks the budget to cover a second hotel room.

To bolster a grant application with a show of racial diversity among collaborators, a foreign-born assistant professor of color is prodded by colleagues to identify, inaccurately, as African-American, a request he finds uncomfortable.

A Chinese applicant to a graduate program wins a slot because “he won’t be uppity or demanding,” while a Hispanic applicant loses out because he has a big family “that will suck up his time and energy.”

The above scenarios all took place in real life at FIU. Now they form part of the daylong Bystander Leadership Program presented by the Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity and supported by a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

As with any of the dozens of seminars I’ve attended in my 11 years as a faculty member at FIU, the first thought to immediately pop into my head was I hope this is good use of my time. 

The experience began prior to the actual workshop day with an online assessment of implicit bias, a series of words and images that I reacted to by making associations. The takeaway was that many of the biases that people hold related to race, gender and other characteristics can be implicit, meaning that they do not necessarily align with our stated beliefs or actions. The exercise demonstrated that despite our best efforts to treat everybody fairly, implicit biases do exist within most of us and can manifest themselves in unconscious ways. 

With 25 of us gathered together, we discussed procedures for recognizing cases of bias and strategies for acting when it occurs. From the many real-world scenarios presented, it was clear to me that I, and probably many others, have been present when cases of bias have occurred. Whether it is in the evaluation of prospective students, the hiring of new faculty or discussions about awarding faculty tenure, there exists ample opportunity for individuals to be judged unfairly on criteria other than their work or intellect. 

The next question: What do we if we witness cases of bias? Depending on one’s personality and professional relationship to the offending party, responding at the time can be an intimidating task. Fortunately, intervening to address incidents of bias does not have to occur immediately or be overly confrontational. Approaches include speaking up to diffuse the situation in the moment; speaking to the “offender” at a later time to calmly discuss why his or her actions might have been inappropriate; or going to a department head or chairperson to determine the best course of action. The important thing is to not ignore the problem. Fortunately, we have many resources at FIU that can help us deal with these issues, from university administrators and senior colleagues to the office of Equal Opportunity Programs. 

The workshop included several opportunities to role play. As a Caucasian male, it was instructive for me to step into the shoes of someone from a different ethnic background and think about how they would feel and react in tense situations. For example, I was asked to play a mixed-race researcher who was pressured to declare himself an African American to improve the funding chances of a grant application.

One of the most eye-opening moments of the day for me was when we were presented with a long checklist of statements such as “I am a female,” “I belong to a racial minority group,” “I am afraid to hold my partner’s hand in public,” and so on. Even though I did not check any of the items, it really highlighted for me the different dimensions and domains along which one could experience bias. This exercise provided me with a clearer perspective on issues that many of our faculty, staff and students probably experience daily.

Overall the workshop was great, and I hope all our faculty eventually have the opportunity to participate. Encouraging and accepting diversity among people encourages diversity of thought. In the end, that makes not only our university stronger but the organizations where our students eventually secure work and the society in which we all live. 

Timothy Page is an associate professor of health policy and management in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work.