Professor’s research focuses on reducing implicit bias in the workplace

KENNESAW, Ga. | Nov 18, 2020

Tracie Stewart
Tracie Stewart

Having a biased perspective about someone without realizing it can have a profound negative impact on productivity, efficiency and relationships in the workplace, according to Kennesaw State University psychology professor Tracie Stewart.

“Implicit, or unconscious, biases are stereotypes and prejudices that are activated automatically, unintentionally and outside of our awareness,” Stewart said. “They are biases that we have but don’t realize we have, and they can be based on a person’s race, gender, age, religion and/or sexual orientation. In my research, I have never found anyone who has no biases of any kind on the unconscious level, but fortunately there are ways to reduce, if not eradicate, implicit bias and its negative effects in our workplaces.”

Stewart’s research has focused on the prevalence and consequences of implicit racial and gender bias in the workplace and the ways in which people can identify their unconscious biases as one step toward effecting change in their communities. A portion of Stewart’s research tested how people show biases in job interviews.

“The effects of unconscious bias in the workplace actually start in interviews,” Stewart said, citing a series of studies that measured implicit gender bias for a subset of male workplace leaders. Their interviews with female candidates were recorded and played back for a set of evaluators who did not know the interviewers’ implicit bias scores. The studies found that the higher the male interviewer’s level of implicit gender bias, the worse evaluators rated the female interviewee’s performance.

“So, in other words, if the male interviewer expected a female interview to perform poorly, his actions actually undermined her performance,” Stewart said. “As for the interview actions that caused these effects, research has found that the higher an interviewer’s level of implicit racial or gender bias, the less eye contact they make with interviewees for whose group they hold biases, the farther away they sit, and the quicker they end the interview altogether.”

To address implicit biases in the workplace, Stewart has developed a technique known as Situational Attribution Training to help rewire the brain to reduce implicit bias. According to Stewart, the practice is designed to train people to consider multiple possible attributions for colleagues’ behaviors for which they might otherwise have automatically jumped to a stereotypic explanation.

“If a female colleague raises her voice in a meeting, she is often judged as ‘emotional,’ whereas if a male colleague raises his voice, he tends to be seen as ‘assertive,’” Stewart said. “Our technique disrupts these automatic stereotypic judgments through training to consider not just one, but multiple possible attributions for that action. Our goal is to increase people’s judgment choices versus people having judgments made for them, unconsciously, by their implicit biases.”

Stewart also has developed the TRiMM Model – which stands for transform, reduce, manage and mitigate – to address implicit biases. Following these steps over time can allow for greater success both relationally and professionally, she explained.

“We have found in research studies that identifying and intentionally examining the personal and institutional biases that we all hold – instead of ignoring them – can lead to so many benefits, including greater productivity, innovation and equity in the workplace,” Stewart said. “We have to keep in mind that we’re all works in progress. We have to choose the journey toward growing ourselves and our organizations into what we want them to be.”

To hear more from Stewart, listen to the “Thought Provoking” podcast that spotlights research and expertise from KSU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

– Josh Milton

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit