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Why good intentions aren't enough.

Good intentions and efforts to be objective are not enough.

If you are like most of us, you are confident of your ability to be objective and impartial when it comes to weighing and comparing the qualifications of colleagues in your area of expertise and your discipline more generally.

However, a keen eye and good intentions alone are not enough to neutralize powerful—and quite natural—information processing biases shared by all humans. In fact, for Scenarios A and B, actions to ensure gender fairness must start long before the final set of job candidates/prize nominees is on the table.

What’s going on here? The answer, it turns out, is in the way that all humans process information. Much of the time we rely on cognitive shortcuts. On the plus side, these shortcuts make it possible for us to juggle quantities of complex information without becoming bogged down in detail. On the negative side, however, cognitive shortcuts can lead us to overlook information or come to premature conclusions—even when we aim to be objective.

How people process social information.

How we process social information, especially information about other people, can be heavily influenced by stereotypes, a form of cognitive shortcut that entails quick and unconscious generalization about an individual based on her or his group membership.

Other kinds of cognitive short-cuts can trip up our objectivity, too. For example, when asked to think of examples of a given category like “vegetables” or “movies,” or “prominent scientists,” we are more likely to think of examples we’ve encountered recently or that are commonly encountered.

Stereotypes, both positive and negative, can have powerful effects, even when we do not explicitly believe them. Research in scientific psychology repeatedly shows that everyone—regardless of the social groups we belong to—is influenced by stereotypes. We are influenced even by stereotypes of our own group.

Cognitive short-cuts impair objectivity.

These unconsciously deployed stereotypes underlie the persistence of patterns of gender inequity in academic engineering and science. Prejudice and blatant discrimination still occur in work environments, however, most gender discrimination today happens “under the radar.” See a sample of WAGES items for an illustration.

Even when we know about the power of stereotypes and cognitive short-cuts to impair our objectivity, it takes work to organize evaluative information to reduce our susceptibility to those biasing influences. Crosby and colleagues have shown that even just the arrangement of the data can disguise or reveal a pattern of inequity. Click here for a demonstration.

To learn more about the power of cognitive short-cuts and our difficulty in neutralizing their biasing effects, see: http://www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/ and http://www.understandingprejudice.org/asi/.