By John Mattson '22
In February, the School of Engineering welcomed biologist Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff to educate the Tufts community on implicit bias and its effects on women and underrepresented groups in STEM. After her distinguished career as a researcher and academic, Villa-Komaroff has dedicated her time to promoting diversity within the sciences. Her illuminating presentation came with a clear message: Understanding the current lack of diversity within STEM is key to building a more inclusive future.
Dr. Villa-Komaroff explained that implicit bias isn’t a problem specific to one group of people, but rather it’s present in many decisions that everyone makes. To frame her ideas about human bias, she pulled from the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who found that decisions we make are a result of two major systems in the brain. The first system is for quick, intuitive decisions like whether to catch a frisbee or duck out of the way. The second system is for slower, more deliberate thinking, like solving a math problem. According to Villa-Komaroff, implicit bias arises because when making decisions, our slower, more deliberate system two can only work so hard, and is often helped out by our less- evolved , prejudice system one without us realizing.
Our implicit biases are informed by evolution, but also by our culture. Villa-Komaroff pointed out that math test scores among men and women in Poland are equal, while in the United States men consistently score higher. Cultural views of certain groups have a tangible effect on how they perform academically. “Even when we know better, “ she said, “we are still informed by habits of thinking that we we have been bombarded with since we were born. “
Despite the grim reality, Villa-Komaroff is confident that, as the most adaptable species, we can change our habits of thinking. She shared an uplifting study conducted in 2017 among the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The research found that the faculty members who attended a two-hour workshop on implicit bias, had more diverse departments in the following years by over 15 percent. Simply being aware that our decisions may be influenced by biases allows us to be less affected by them.
Inclusion and opportunity have always been integral to the Tufts experience, and we are proudly raising the bar every year. Far above the national average, at Tufts, 49 percent of the Engineering Class of 2022 are women. “Here, ” Dr. Villa-Komaroff said in closing, “the number of women in the [engineering] departments is the result of people working very hard to make sure that talented people of the female gender are admitted.”