Social Psychology

Dr. Toni Schmader

“Our research suggests that biases are most likely to leak out into people’s behaviour when they don’t believe bias is a problem. So the people who say, ‘It’s 2019, we don’t have a problem anymore’ are more likely to let biases creep into their decision-making.”

Dr. Toni Schmader researches gender disparities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As the Canada Research Chair in social psychology and director of the Engendering Success in STEM Consortium, she tackles some important questions. What is behind the educational culture that prevents girls from entering these fields? And how does workplace culture perpetuate inequality?

Dr. Schmader is working on ways to stop implicit bias at a young age, and to help men and women work together for change in the workplace.

Toni Schmader

Over 50 per cent of undergraduates in Canada are women, but in engineering and computer science that figure is less than 30 per cent

Toni Schmader

One of the biggest factors contributing to the gender pay gap is self-selection by women into lower-paying occupations

Anker, R. (1997). Theories of occupational segregation by sex: An overview. International Labour Review, 136.

Toni Schmader

By age seven, North American children demonstrate implicit stereotypes, associating math more strongly with boys than girls

Cvencek, D., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kapur, M. (2014). Cognitive consistency and math-gender stereotypes in Singaporean children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 117, 73–91.

What is the goal of your research?

Our consortium is examining the implicit biases that lead kids and adults to associate science and math with men more than women. We aim to foster more respectful interactions in the workplace and create a more inclusive environment by understanding the factors that create inequalities and perpetuate them over time.

To change these biases, you need to start young. Later on, it’s more difficult to change them. But you can educate people about biases so they can change aspects of their educational institutions or workplace environment to reduce the effects of these biases and build better relationships.

How do biases affect organizational culture?

The culture of an organization exists on three levels, and biases can be found at all three. The first is institutional — the existing structures, procedures, practices and policies that make it easier for some people to become successful. The second is in the minds of the individuals. People’s beliefs and biases can influence their decisions around hiring and promoting, but they can also influence their career choices.

The third level involves interpersonal interactions biases and beliefs play out in the interactions between people in an organization or an educational environment.

Why is diversity important at work and in education?

In science, you need a diversity of perspectives to ensure an accurate representation of what truth really is. Having a diverse group of people examining a problem can result in more innovative solutions. From an economic perspective, in fields such as engineering where there are labour shortages, a focus on diversity can help you tap into the potential of people who may have been overlooked. And of course there’s fairness: you want to make sure you’re breaking down barriers that prevent people who have an interest and aptitude from going into whatever field they want to pursue.

One of the reasons our consortium cares about diversity is because we live in a world that has been designed for, and mostly by, white men. This means there are a lot of ways that our products, environment, and procedures are built with a default person in mind. That has implications for safety for people who don’t fit into that box.

For example, crash-test dummies are designed for the average-sized male. This means all of our safety standards for automobiles are designed around that default body type. It’s been shown that women are more likely to be injured in car accidents because of this design bias. So we care about diversity in terms of making sure you have a range of people at the table when these kinds of design decisions are being made.

What drives you to work for change?

Every time I talk about the work I do, I’m amazed at how much our research resonates with the community and how grateful they are that it’s happening.

For example, the gender pay gap. One of the biggest contributing factors is the underrepresentation of women in the highest-paying careers that are often in engineering and technology. If women feel like they are not welcome in those careers, that alone plays a large role in increasing that gap.

What is your vision for change?

My vision is to make people more mindful of the subtle forces that influence their choices and perceptions. Our research shows that the people who are most likely to let their implicit biases affect their behaviour are the ones that don’t believe bias is a problem. Once people understand how bias affects their decision-making, they can set them aside when making decisions.

By the same token, when women feel wholly respected by the men around them, gender never comes to mind for them. They find it harder to imagine why gender is even a problem. So once you have an inclusive environment where people are mindful of these issues and respectful of each other, that’s the key to making these identities less relevant to the workplace.

What has your experience been working as a researcher at UBC?

I have the privilege of working in a department [the Psychology Department] that embodies everything that I talk about. We are about 50/50 men and women. It is my experience that everyone feels fully respected for what they do. As a result, it’s not that gender isn’t ever an issue, but I feel like I am working in a place where people are aware and motivated to rise to the challenge when problems or issues arise.

I know that everyone doesn’t have that same experience, and that’s part of what motivates me to replicate what I see here at UBC for others in their field.

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