The unconscious Canadian

Hidden prejudice undermines workplace equality

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:14:47 PM

While most Canadians have no tolerance for outward expressions of prejudice toward women and visible minorities, many people still retain inward prejudices toward these groups, often without realizing it.

University of Guelph psychology professor Leanne Son Hing is studying how implicit prejudice—negative stereotypes people are typically unaware of harbouring—affects the way Canadians behave toward one another.

"Over the last 20 to 30 years, prejudice has become largely socially unacceptable," says Son Hing. "But we're discovering it's still not a thing of the past."

Using questionnaires and computer-based tests, Son Hing and research collaborator Mark Zanna of the University of Waterloo, are measuring implicit and explicit—conscious and deliberately expressed—prejudice, and examining how both types of prejudice affect people’s behaviour.

So far, the research team has found that more than 90 per cent of white participants appear to more quickly associate negative (versus positive) concepts with visible minorities, and more than 75 per cent of men appear to more quickly associate incompetence (versus competence) with women. Incredibly, says Son Hing, these biases are often found among people who identify themselves as unprejudiced.

In addition, Son Hing discovered that participants, who see themselves as unprejudiced but hold implicit prejudices, are more likely to evaluate visible minorities and women as incompetent, and less likely to support programs or initiatives for these groups.

"People can't always control the way they respond to others,” says Son Hing. “If they are implicitly prejudiced, they are likely to discriminate despite their best attempts to control their reactions."

Yet there is hope. When people who consider themselves unprejudiced become aware of their bias, they usually take immediate steps to correct it, says Son Hing.

Building on this fact, Son Hing plans future research on how consciousness-raising programs could be used to reduce implicit prejudice across the country.

Leanne Son Hing’s research on prejudice in the workplace is funded by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.