Could Implicit Bias Be at Work?

A first-year graduate student searches for effective mentorship as an underrepresented scientist.

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2022

Conducting three rotations across various labs for the first year of my human genetics Ph.D. experience has been both exhilarating and arduous, as I have navigated scientific curiosity amid uncertainty about whether I can make a space for myself in this new environment.

As a member of a marginalized group, answering the question of, “What constitutes having space for myself?” means receiving mentorship and support in a way that is reflective of my own needs and areas of development. Balancing these mentorship needs with my scientific curiosity amid the expansive field of human genetics has been a challenge.

Human genetics is a broad field, with many variations and subfields to navigate as an early-career professional. With the endless experiential possibilities, it’s no wonder that I began considering four rotations rather than the recommended three.

Yet, in discussing this possibility, I noticed variation in the responses I received, particularly when it came to professors’ patience and validation of my current professional stage. In some of the best conversations, I felt supported and even empowered. In others, I walked away feeling like I was a gently waving red flag, with concern that my desire for an additional rotation signaled disorganization and incompetence.

During one conversation, I was scheduled to speak with a professor for an hour, but the discussion ended after a 10-minute conversation, filled with reticence over possible projects I could participate in and the instruction to focus on “finding a rotation lab for now.”

There are many possible explanations to why some of my conversations were less successful than others. I wondered: Could there possibly be implicit bias at work?

Recently, I read an article on implicit bias in workplace relationships that described how peers and/or superiors may more closely scrutinize individuals who belong to a minority/marginalized group. It made me reflect on another psychological concept known as the fundamental attribution error: We are more likely to view people’s situations as the result of their own personalities, as opposed to acknowledging how their environment also played a role. Members of minority groups are more likely to experience negative attribution bias, in which they may be blamed for their predicaments.

In applying this to my experience as a first-year graduate student, then, I thought: Is it not rather normal for me to find myself at the fork of navigating different subspecialties in human genetics, especially as a rather explorative person? Then I wondered, how possible is it that my curious nature is misattributed to disorganization, simply because I am a visible Arab, hijab-wearing woman?

Recognizing how these psychological phenomena may manifest, I’ve shifted my focus in my lab search from wondering, “How am I treated in this lab overall, particularly when I’m doing well?” to, “How am I treated when I am not performing at my best? And how trusted am I to perform well?”

It is important to recognize that people’s treatment of us is often viewed in light of our own interpretations of ourselves. In other words, our internal dialogue and self-image will interact with people’s behaviors toward us. One study showed that females, individuals of underrepresented groups and those from lower socioeconomic groups were more likely to drop out of STEM, even if they performed at the same level as their counterparts — perhaps due to decreased confidence in their ability to succeed and the cognitive strain of coping with negative stereotypes, particularly in situations where students are being evaluated.

In recognizing this, it is important for mentors to acknowledge the way that implicit bias may affect their perceptions of students, particularly in situations where students can benefit from a suspension of judgment and overall extra support. Doing so shifts the narrative from increased recruitment of underrepresented scientists to their retention. n

Rama Alhariri is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Human Genetics and Molecular Biology program. This article was adapted from the Biomedical Odyssey blog.

Editor's Notes: Spring/Summer 2022

This issue's note from the editor.

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