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Gender at Work

These female engineers increased their job offers by 47% in only 2 hours

There’s new science-backed evidence that diversity training workshops work. For a paper set to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers decided to test their experimental “prejudice habit-breaking intervention” at STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) departments where women are historically underrepresented. Women are almost half of the U.S. workforce, but they’re 39% of chemists, 28% of environmental scientists, and 12% of civil engineers. In fact, 40% of women engineers quit the field or will never use their degree.

But researcher Susan G. Devine and her colleagues found that an intervention designed to break gender biases could make a difference. They split up 98 UW-Madison STEM departments into those who would receive a two-and-a-half hour gender bias-breaking workshop and a control group. Prior research into these type of interventions found that it would increase awareness of gender bias and foster a sense of belonging for the women who took it. But the researchers wanted to go one step further and the measure the structural impact of diversity training. They measured the increase in women hires in STEM departments that got the training.

Those hours of training made a lasting difference. Before the intervention, both groups in the study were hiring about a third of women. Two years after the intervention, departments that got the training were hiring 47% more women while the control group was still stagnant.

Though the results did not achieve statistical significance due to sample size, they do have practical significance for any workplace seeking to stop bias.

Here’s how you can adopt the steps in their gender habit-breaking intervention.

Awareness that people may discriminate against you 

The first step in the study’s was to teach participants how to become “aware of when one is vulnerable to unintentional bias.” Before the workshop, participants had to take a test on their own gender biases to see how they fared. After that, they listen to feedback on how they could improve. The workshop itself began with outlining the stakes: how gender bias hurts the overarching goal of advancing science for humankind.

Learning to recognize what bias looks like

The next step was to teach participants how to understand “the consequences of unintentional bias.” Participants learned about stereotypes relevant to STEM fields and how they manifest in the workplace. Participants would also discuss case studies with discriminatory outcomes to practice identifying what gender bias looks like.

Practice fending off bias

The final step was putting what they learned into practice, so that participants could leave the workshop with “effective strategies to reduce the impact of unintentional bias.” These evidence-base strategies ranged from stereotype replacement to perspective taking and increasing opportunities for meeting with people unlike you.

Finally, researchers had participants commit to a call to action. Participants all wrote statements about how they would work to reduce gender bias in their personal and professional lives.

The participants taking this test may be rocket scientists, but what these clear steps show is that breaking stereotypes shouldn’t be rocket science. At their core, these strategies are asking us to pay attention to the impact of our words and behavior on others. It shows us that gender biases aren’t permanent—they can be broken. By becoming more aware, we can break bad habits and change the course of our careers, and the careers of others.