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Bias busting: Brief educational session may help pave way for women to lead medical schools

executive-461653_1280The fact that men vastly outnumber women as leaders — in positions ranging from senior professors to deans — in top academic medical schools is likely news to no one. And reaching some semblance of equality isn't going to happen organically for many decades.

One major stumbling block is bias: Because men are currently leaders, many of us naturally associate men with leadership. But a recent effort led by surgeon Sabine Girod, MD, DDS, and former Stanford physician-scholar Hannah Valantine, MD, found that a simple educational intervention may smash away at that bias.

In work published in Academic Medicine, the researchers exposed 281 Stanford School of Medicine faculty members to a 20-minute educational session led by pre-trained "champions" — nine men and four women who had been identified as leaders. The session helped reduce the implicit biases held by both men and women. I chatted recently and produced a Q&A with Girod, who explained their results:

Q:  What is the difference between implicit and explicit bias?

Girod: Explicit biases are deliberately formed at the conscious level and are easy to self-report. For example, in the context of this study, a person might say that both women and men have the same leadership potential, since it is socially desirable to do so. On the other hand, implicit biases are attitudes held at the unconscious level and are involuntarily formed. These biases are often informed by cues we pick up from our social environments. Even though someone might say women and men have the same leadership potential explicitly, the person may unconsciously associate men with leadership more than women and unknowingly act in ways that impede women in leadership.

Q:  What was the most surprising result of this work?

Girod: The most surprising result was that the implicit bias of the participants changed after they heard a 20-minute presentation that summarizes the research literature on implicit bias and provides guidance on how to overcome the undesired effects of implicit bias. Since implicit biases are unconscious, we did not expect to see an effect of this short intervention. Prior research has shown that once you are made aware of your implicit biases, you can actually work to improve upon them. This is clearly what happened among our participants, but we were pleasantly surprised that this process could begin after a mere 20-minute presentation.

Previously: Former Brown University President Ruth Simmons challenges complacency on diversity, Panel on diversity calls for transformative change in society, courageous leadership from individuals and Hannah Valantine: Leading the way in diversifying medicine
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