The Challenges to Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Campus

To succeed, diversity programs need campus-wide support. However, studies show that even those who value equality may unconsciously behave in discriminatory ways.[1] This is called having an unconscious bias. (You can assess your own biases through the Harvard Implicit Bias tests.) Here, we examine the most common biases and their effects on creating an inclusive campus.

What Is an Unconscious Bias?

An unconscious bias refers to a prejudice we are unaware of holding. While we might believe we are objective, research shows that each of us brings a lifetime of experience and cultural history into our interactions with others. Examples of unconscious biases include:

  • Gender Bias: For example, women’s achievements are commonly perceived to be due to luck, while men’s successes are attributed to skill.[2] Also, perceived contradictions between femininity and leadership place women in a double bind: Women are less likely to be seen as capable of leadership and are held back from prominent positions. On the other hand, women in leadership positions who demonstrate ability are given unfavorable evaluations as they are violating gender norms.[3]
  • Racial Bias: Faculty of color report feeling a perceived assumption by colleagues that they were hired for affirmative action purposes, which creates pressure to prove that they deserve their positions.[4]
  • Sexual Orientation Bias: Even when individuals may not personally hold biases against members of the LGBTQ community, they may assume that others do. First-year students are likely to believe that their peers hold negative attitudes about LGBTQ individuals, which results in behavior adjustment to mirror this misperception.[5] And LGBTQ faculty report being treated as the “resident authority” on LGBTQ issues, regardless of their actual research interests.[6]

Some people’s identities place them at the intersection of multiple sources of bias, as is the case for lesbian women or gay men of color. These individuals report greater harassment than their white and heterosexual peers, leading researchers to confirm that the intersection of sexism, racism and heterosexism increases oppression.

What Happens to Students When Biases Go Unchecked?

In instances of gender bias, female students may feel less comfortable in their classes, hindering their academic success. Particularly in classes with sex ratios that heavily favor male peers, women may experience “a chilly climate,” including use of sexist language, presentation of stereotypic and/or disparaging views of women, differential treatment from professors and sexual harassment.[7]

Students experiencing racial bias report feeling that their presence on campus is assumed to be a result of affirmative action policies. And African American and Asian American graduate students feel they are taken less seriously than their white peers,[8] which may interfere with positive collaboration with faculty and other graduate students.

When it comes to sexual orientation bias, 47 percent of LGBTQ students reported hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” on campus. These students were more likely to report symptoms of emotional and physical distress, including headaches and loss of appetite.[9] Compared with heterosexual students, LGBTQ students are more likely to perceive the campus climate as less welcoming.[10]

How Do Unconscious Biases Affect Students?

Two of the most common issues — retention and academic development — affect all students.

  • Retention. Among undergraduates nationwide, 60 percent of white students, but only 49 percent of Latino and 40 percent of Black students, earn their degree within six years of college enrollment. When it comes to LGBTQ students, 33 percent report seriously considering leaving college due to issues related to their sexual orientation, including harassment and fear for their physical safety.[11]
  • Academic development. Majority students are also hindered by discriminatory environments. Studies show that inexperience with “outgroup members” (underrepresented communities) causes “ingroup members” (majority members) to feel anxious about interactions with underrepresented groups, such as fearing that they may say or do the wrong thing. This anxiety can cause majority members to respond with hostility or simply avoid these interactions,[12] preventing them from the myriad benefits of diverse interactions.

How Do Unconscious Biases Affect Faculty?

Lower job satisfaction, tense relationships with colleagues and an unequal division of duties are real problems when unconscious biases go unchecked.

  • Lower faculty satisfaction. Numerous studies show that women and underrepresented faculty members are considerably less satisfied with many aspects of their jobs than majority male faculty members, including teaching, committee assignments, involvement in decision making, professional relations with colleagues, promotion and tenure.
  • Less productive relationships with colleagues. LGBTQ faculty and faculty of color report exclusion, isolation and alienation in their interactions with colleagues in predominantly white universities.[13] Underrepresented groups often bear the brunt of less respectful interactions with their white colleagues compared to other white colleagues.[14]
  • Inequitable evaluations and promotion decisions. The work and ideas of underrepresented faculty may be undervalued or misattributed to collaborators despite contrary evidence. These individuals may also be subject to higher expectations for tenure, such as number and quality of publications.
  • Unfair assignment of responsibilities. The ability of women and other underrepresented faculty to run a research group, raise funds and supervise students and staff may be underestimated, and may influence committee and teaching assignments. In particular, assumptions about possible family responsibilities and their effect on a colleague’s career path may negatively influence evaluation of merit, despite evidence of productivity.
  • Deterred collaboration. Faculty from institutions other than the major research universities may be undervalued. Opportunities to benefit from the expertise of colleagues from other institutions, such as historically black universities, four-year colleges, the government or private industry, may be overlooked.

    [1] Dovidio, 2001 

    [2] Valian, 1999

    [3] Eagly & Karau, 2002; Ridgeway, 2001

    [4]  Menges & Exum, 1983; Reyes & Halcon, 1988, cited in Johnsrud & Sadao, 1998, p. 316

    [5] Bowen & Bourgeois, 2001

    [6] Rankin et al., 2010; 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People

    [7] Crombie et al., 2003; Foster, 1994; Hall & Sandler, 1982, 1984; Sands, 1998; Swim et al., 2001; Van Roosmalen, 1998; Sandler & Hall, 1986; Whitt et al., 1999

    [8] Reid & Radhakrishnan, 2003

    [9] Woodford et al., 2012

    [10] Brown et al., 2004; Brown et al., 2004

    [11] Rankin et al.,  2010; 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People

    [12] Plant & Devine, 2003  

    [13] Rankin et al., 2010; Turner & Monyers, 2000  

    [14] Dovidio et al., 1997