SAGE Musings: Addressing Implicit Bias in STEM

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Nov 29, 2018 9:23am

Implicit biases are unconscious, negative associations or stereotypes. As I described in my last SAGE Musing, implicit bias is pervasive in STEM, profoundly impacting the experiences of anyone who belongs to groups that are underrepresented in the STEM disciplines. Moreover, being a member of an underrepresented group does not make one immune to these biases; we ALL have them (Ashburn-Nardo, 2018). Fortunately, there are evidence-based strategies and resources we can all use to identify and mitigate implicit biases. In October, 2018, I attended a series of four webinars, produced by the CIRTL network, about implicit biases. In this Musing, I highlight strategies to identify and address implicit biases.

Develop your awareness of implicit bias

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to the U. S. Congress, has been detailing her experiences via twitter. In her first few days on the job, she has been directed to a "spouse's event" instead of the luncheon for members of Congress to which she was headed, and has also been mistaken for an intern or staff member (Hutzler, 2018). Why have these things been happening to her? I contend that it is because humans make assumptions based on physical appearances and on our own past experiences. Which is to say, we have implicit biases, such as the unconscious belief that young Latinas are not members of Congress.

It is specifically because these beliefs are unconscious that we must become aware of them in order to change them (Pietri, 2018).


  • Assume you are not immune to implicit bias (Pietri, 2018).
    • Grade tests and assignments without access to the students' identities. One way to achieve this is to ask students to put only their student ID number, not their names, on their assignments.
    • Use rubrics to grade assignments. This makes it easier to apply your evaluation standards consistently to the work of all students.
    • Call on men and women equally in class; apply the same principle for other subpopulations of students. If you're not sure how to manage this, or if White male students are the only ones participating in discussions in your class, cultivating your students' voices includes specific strategies for ensuring that every student in your classroom has opportunities to speak.
  • Engage in self-reflection (CRLT, 2016).
    • Examine your own assumptions. Ask yourself what your assumptions are about individual students' motivation, interest, and abilities. Do those assumptions align with stereotypes? If so, consider the possibility that you are influenced by implicit biases.
    • Pay attention to which students you interact with in class, and in what ways. Do you listen with equal attentiveness to all students? Are you surprised when some students show insight? Do you reserve your more challenging, thought-provoking questions for some subset of students?
    • Monitor your behavior toward colleagues. Check out this handy list on the Tenure She Wrote blog: Don't be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic. Although it focuses on gender issues, you could re-frame most of the suggestions in terms of other stereotypes.
  • Educate yourself about bias in STEM. Research shows that knowing about bias can change faculty attitudes and intentions (e.g. Moss-Racusin et al., 2018).

Pay attention to interpersonal interactions

Implicit bias often manifests itself in interpersonal interactions. This includes our own interactions with students and colleagues as well as student-student interactions.


  • Set expectations of respectful behavior in advance (CRLT, no date)
  • Use inclusive language. Talk about humankind rather than mankind, etc. (Pietri, 2018 and references therein)
  • Listen for language that reinforces stereotypes. Call out any stereotype-reinforcing speech or behavior in your classroom (Hilson, 2018, and references therein)
    • Call it out when you hear it; explain that the statement is based on a stereotype.
    • Listen for (and call out) micro-aggressions.
  • Validate contributions made by people who belong to underrepresented groups. Use micro-validations.
  • Think about cultural differences when interacting with students and colleagues. For example, don't assume that an unwillingness to ask questions is indicative of a lack of interest; it may be related to a cultural taboo to challenge authority (Hilson, 2018, and references therein).

Make course content relevant to diverse populations

Implicit biases show up not just in how we teach, but also in what we choose to teach. Geoscience courses have the opportunity to include topics related to equity, such as environmental justice, as well as topics related to the future of humanity: our planet's changing climate, the future of food, or water resources. By looking at our course content through the lens of relevance to our students' lives, we can make our courses more compelling to all of our students.


  • Use real-world examples of applications of course content, and make sure the examples are relevant to diverse populations (Hilson, 2018, and references therein).
  • Discuss the accomplishments -- and show images -- of diverse scientists who have made contributions to our discipline (e.g. Schinske et al., 2016; Hennes, Pietri et al., GPIR, 2018; Pietri, 2018 and references therein). Counter-stereotypical examples are powerful.

Use pedagogical methods that engage all students

It is now widely accepted that active learning pedagogies, also known as engaged pedagogies, lead to deeper and more lasting learning (e.g. Freeman et al., 2014). By utilizing pedagogies designed to engage ALL students, we move toward ensuring that every student has the opportunity to learn how to think like a scientist.


  • Explore the many, many ways to engage students in active learning.
  • Emphasize a growth mindset (Pietri, 2018, and references therein).
  • When using collaborative learning, make teams diverse (Hilson, 2018).
    • Put more than one representative of a group in each mixed group. Students of color and White women tend to have better learning experiences in small groups if they are not the "only ____" in their group (Imoukhuede, 2017).
  • Integrate high impact practices, and decrease the barriers to participation: Make high impact practices part of your course(s). For example, construct course-based undergraduate research activities or course-based service learning projects (Hilson, 2018, and references therein).


By developing our awareness of bias in STEM and changing some of our practices, we can make a difference. Given how far the geosciences lags behind even other STEM disciplines in diversity issues (e.g. Sidder, 2017), we need to get to work. What have you been doing to address implicit bias in STEM? What will you do differently, moving forward?

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