Unconscious bias affects biomedical careers

Workshop addresses issue under scrutiny by NIH and AAMC

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

March 09, 2012
   Judith Ockene, PhD

The role of unconscious bias in limiting biomedical career development for underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities and persons from disadvantaged backgrounds is an issue of great concern to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Association of Medical colleges (AAMC), and was the topic of the latest Leadership Speaker Series workshop at UMass Medical School. On Wednesday, Feb. 29, Judith Ockene, PhD, MEd, MA, the Barbara Helen Smith Chair of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, professor of medicine and associatevice provost for gender & equity, conducted the workshop “Micro-Inequities: The Power of Subtle Discrimination and How to Address It,” hosted by the Office of Faculty Affairs (OFA).

Dr. Ockene used stories and examples to illustrate and discuss the negative power of subtle discrimination and negative micro-messages that take the form of gestures, looks and other non-verbal cues. She introduced participants to techniques they can use to start making a difference, including the use of positive micro-messages or micro-affirmations as effective ways to build confidence, morale and performance.

The term ‘micro-inequities’ was coined in 1973 by Mary Rowe, PhD, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Defined as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard to prove (or identify), often unintentional and frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, micro-inequities occur wherever people are perceived to be different.” Conversely, micro-affirmations are “apparently small acts, also often ephemeral and hard to see but very effective, which occur whenever people help others succeed.”

  Micro-Affirmations: Top 10 List for Turning Around Problem Relationships

(SOURCE: Young, S., Micro Messaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words, McGraw-Hill, 2007)

  • Actively solicit opinions
  • Connect on a personal level
  • Constantly ask questions
  • Attribute/credit ideas
  • Monitor your facial expressions
  • Actively listen to all
  • Draw in participation
  • Monitor personal greetings
  • Respond constructively to disagreements
  • Limit Interruptions

The NIH has established an Advisory Committee to the NIH Director’s Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce to examine diversity and provide concrete recommendations on ways to enhance diversity throughout the various research career stages. In response to a recent Request for Information from the working group’s advisory committee, the AAMC included as one of its recommendations, “Assess and counteract the role of unconscious bias.”

Committed to advancement and equity for faculty, Ockene, who previously served UMMS as interim vice chancellor for faculty affairs, is principal investigator on the UMMS application to the National Science Foundation for a grant dedicated to the advancement of women in STEM careers. With its goal to develop objective measures of micro-inequities and strategies demonstrated to reduce their occurrence, the application is called Institutional Networks and Continuous Learning to UnDo Effects of Micro-Inequities on Women (INCLUDE-Women).

“The first step for reducing the occurrence of micro-inequities is to be aware of them as perpetrated by ourselves and others—we each do this hundreds of times a day,” said Ockene. “We need to create a culture of inclusion and valuing each other and remember that there are no little things, they all add up.”