Implicit Cultural Bias in Ecology

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, this blog post addresses the issue of implicit cultural bias in ecology and related fields. The author has chosen to remain anonymous, as they have included several personal examples.


Implicit cultural bias

I was shocked. I couldn’t form words. The acclaimed professor peered at me waiting for a response.
“I said I once had a girl from [insert Asian country] and she couldn’t take it. She started her PhD with me but never finished.”
I adjusted my black pony-tail and blinked my hooded eyelids, pausing, waiting, not knowing how to respond. Was he implying that he’d once had an Asian student who didn’t complete her PhD so ‘people like me’ couldn’t complete a PhD? That made me feel angry. That made me feel sad. That made me feel more determined than ever.

Imagine going to work and people assuming you lack skills or abilities just from looking at you or reading your name. That’s what we’re up against. As an Australian Born Chinese (ABC) science professional, I’ve become finely attuned to implicit bias. Implicit or unconscious bias occurs when particular stereotypes or generalisations are attributed to a member of a certain group of people. These are just a few incidents of implicit cultural bias that I’ve encountered working in ecology and related fields across different continents.


“The new PhD student sent me an email this week,” the head of our research group proclaimed to all those assembled for the lab meeting, “I was surprised. He’s from [insert African country] but his English is very good.”
“Of course he speaks English!” I blurted, “English is one of the official languages in [insert African country]! He’ll speak English as well as you or I”.
Everyone laughed uncomfortably and quickly changed the subject. Though they didn’t seem to be much bothered, I felt indignant and frustrated. It appeared as though the head of our research group had just made assumptions that the new PhD student would have inferior language skills. It isn’t any wonder that unconscious bias influences grant selection and publication if people considered leaders in their fields assume a member of a certain group of people lack basic language skills.

Implicit or unconscious bias isn’t just something Caucasian people express towards non-Caucasian people. It also works the other way around. During fieldwork in South-East Asia, I was encamped at a remote outstation with an in-country colleague and local field assistants. The in-country colleague turned to me and said,
“It’s lovely. I’ve never seen our local field assistants so comfortable with a researcher from outside our country before. Maybe that’s because even though you’re not from here you look Asian so they feel comfortable with you.” She was being kind but her comments also made me feel confused. I wondered whether she was indirectly implying that the field assistants felt uncomfortable working with Caucasian researchers?

In terms of implicit bias, I could also point the finger at myself. For example, I am supervising an international student who comes from a country in South-East Asia. Without planning to, from day one I found myself coaching her. I’d find myself saying things like:
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this…people will make assumptions about your abilities so prove them wrong”.
I probably need to stop projecting. In addition, I’ve realised I might be exhibiting some form of bias because I wouldn’t say these things if my student was Caucasian. There would be no need.

I do not believe that any of the aforementioned anecdotes describe situations of malice nor are they particularly dramatic. I’ve purposefully chosen the subtle unintentional incidents to highlight how insidious implicit bias can be in the workplace and how it feels. For all the cultural diversity hashtags, media coverage, magazine articles, editorials, workplace initiatives, reports, peer-reviewed publications and even ‘prejudice habit-breaking intervention programs’ being a member of a cultural minority in the workplace can still feel like pushing a boulder uphill. Sharing these personal experiences won’t suddenly make our workplaces more inclusive but I hope it at least helps us to reflect and modify our own behaviour and call out others when they are expressing implicit bias.

Years after meeting with that acclaimed professor, I walked across the stage in my cap and gown. I thought of his comment as I received my graduation certificate and took my place in the academic procession. Turns out ‘people like me’ can complete a PhD.

Have you experienced, witnessed or found yourself expressing implicit bias? What did you do?

Multicultural graduation


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