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Self-exploration: Revealing your implicit biases

Biases. We all have them. Although intended to make our brains more efficient by automating certain thoughts (i.e. familiar is safe, unfamiliar is not), we’ve learned that our reactive method for streamlining operations can lead to exclusionary behavior if not checked. Thankfully, our brains are endlessly complex, and with a little research and reflection you can uncover your own implicit (hidden) biases and develop a plan to counteract them – leading to more inclusive decisions in your classroom and your life.

As a high school teacher, you play a critical role for the profession. AICPA research has found that the first accounting course high school students take greatly impacts their decision to pursue accounting as a major and career choice. Simply getting students enrolled in your class is a big win; however, to cultivate a diverse and robust pipeline, students of all backgrounds need to feel like they belong there.

If you asked your students to picture a CPA, what would they see? Although the profession is slowly diversifying, the AICPA Trends Report (2017) shows how minorities continue to taper off throughout the CPA career journey while whites continue to progress into leadership roles. For example, white students made up fifty-nine percent of accounting bachelor’s enrollees and a substantial ninety-five percent of all partners. By contrast, the next largest racial group enrolled in accounting bachelor’s programs - Asian/Pacific Islanders - made up only thirteen percent of enrollees and a mere two percent of partners.

That raises the question – if minority students who possess the talent and discipline needed to become CPAs don’t see a pathway to the top, will they choose to invest in accounting as a career? If we help them draw the map: yes. And what they’ll discover in the process is that their talents and unique experiences are exactly what the profession needs to propel it into the future. Here are a few things you can do to identify your biases and foster greater inclusion in the classroom:

Understand common biases. There are dozens of different biases and an endless number of resources to learn about them (Googling “unconscious bias” brings up nearly 18 million results). Simply becoming aware of them will allow you to pause and think twice about your thought processes to make sure you’re making more intentional decisions. Some common biases include:

  • Affinity bias. Favoring those who are similar to you.
    • Example: You give a new student the benefit of the doubt based solely on the fact that her family attends the same church as you.
  • Observation bias. Seeing what we’re expecting to see.
    • Example: A student who normally struggles with grammar submits a grammatically-sound paper, but you still manage to mark it up more than other students.
  • Conformity bias. Going along with what others are doing, sometimes against your own judgement.
    • Example: You have concerns with a new school policy, but everyone else seems to like it, so you go along with it.
  • Confirmation bias. Sticking to – and seeking out proof – of what you already believe despite new or conflicting information.
    • Example: You heard a student was a bully, so when she points out another student’s error in class, you reprimand her despite her doing it in a respectful way.
  • Diagnosis bias. Labeling someone based on your initial judgement.
    • Example: A student was late on the first day of class, so in the next parent-teacher meeting, you tell his mom and dad he’s always tardy despite his being on-time ever since.
  • Gender bias. Treating individuals differently based on gender.
    • Example: A female student repeatedly talks to her friend during your lecture, and you continue to warn her about consequences; however, on the first instance a male student talks to his friend during your lecture, you pull him aside to talk after class.

Take a bias quiz. Assessing your attitudes and reactions to different groups of people can reveal some interesting insights about how you perceive the world. Project Implicit, a non-profit organization founded by scientists looking to educate the public about hidden biases, offers 14 online quizzes that you can take to assess your level of bias against different groups. The data is SSL encrypted, and no personally identifying information is collected. They also offer explanations and educational materials to help make sense of it all.

Develop a process. Once you’re filled in on the different types of biases and have a better understanding of your own, one of the simplest things you can do is establish grading criteria and a process to keep you focused on the work itself rather than the person who submitted it. Because it’s alarmingly easy for an opinion about a student’s abilities or personality to influence the feedback you provide, blind grading is a great option for reducing bias (removing the student’s name from view). Blackboard and Turnitin have functions that do just that called “Enable Anonymous Grading” and “Anonymous marking,” respectively, so implementing this tool is as easy as changing your settings.

The accounting profession is rapidly evolving to meet global demands and a changing workforce, making it more important than ever for diverse talent to enter the pipeline. Although our brains will never stop seeking shortcuts, taking some time to assess and redirect our mental maps can help overcome obstacles and clear the path for aspiring CPAs – no matter their background.