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Jessica Cundiff

Leah Warner  

Leveraging experiential learning to teach about gender bias 

Jessica Cundiff, Assistant Professor, Missouri University of Science and Technology 
Leah Warner, Associate Professor, Ramapo College of New Jersey 
Recipients of the 2020 Action Teaching Grant

Teaching about hot-button topics such as gender bias poses unique challenges for instructors. Unless carefully and thoughtfully implemented, teaching about bias can backfire and thwart information processing and learning goals by threatening self-views and provoking defensiveness (Cundiff et al., 2014; Howell et al., 2017). To overcome these challenges, we received SPSSI’s Action Teaching Grant to develop and evaluate a classroom activity adapted from prior work (Shields et al., 2011)—Workshop Activity for Gender Equity Simulation-Classroom (WAGES-Classroom).  

WAGES-Classroom is a board game and facilitated discussion that demonstrates how gender biases accumulate over time to negatively impact women in the workplace. Drawing from experiential learning theory (Kolb & Kolb, 2005), WAGES-Classroom engages students in a concrete experience via gameplay that prompts reflection, discovery, and application of knowledge so that learning is self-generated and meaningful. Our research shows that this approach minimizes defensiveness and leaves participants feeling efficacious in their ability to address bias (Cundiff et al., 2014). 

To begin, instructors randomly divide students into two teams, a green team (later revealed to represent women’s experiences) and a yellow team (later revealed to represent men’s experiences). The object of the game is to climb to the top of the career ladder. Students draw cards to advance, and each card describes realistic scenarios based on published research findings on gender inequity (e.g., wage gap, sexual harassment, microaggressions, double standards, tokenism). Many scenarios also illustrate multiple-marginalization as it manifests through race-ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and ability status. Advantages given to the yellow team are subtle and seemingly innocuous at first but accumulate to produce noticeable disparities as the game progresses through different career stages. Thus, students come to discover knowledge about gender bias on their own as the game unfolds.  

©2019 Missouri S&T

After gameplay, instructors lead students in a facilitated discussion that reveals the game’s representation of women’s and men’s experiences in the workplace. Students perform a side-by-side comparison of the cards that illustrates the seemingly minor biases experienced by the green team (e.g., “A yellow team coworker gets credit for something you said at a meeting”) versus the yellow team (e.g., “You get credit for something you said at a meeting”). This discussion introduces students to gender bias terms and theories. It also describes how sexism intersects with other forms of oppression to create distinct experiences of disadvantage, such as variance in the frequency and content of workplace incivilities. The discussion concludes by reviewing empirically-based bias reduction techniques for both individuals and institutions. Students put these strategies into action by brainstorming how to apply them to card scenarios, and then they practice the strategies in small groups.  

Overall, WAGES-Classroom is a theory-driven classroom activity, grounded in scientific research findings, and designed to teach students about unconscious bias, social disparities, and intersectionality in a way that minimizes defensiveness and inspires action. Once efficacy testing is complete, we aim to make WAGES-Classroom widely available for instructors to use in their classrooms, offering both free and professional-grade versions. If you are interested in using WAGES-Classroom in your course, please contact Dr. Cundiff at  



Cundiff, J. L., Zawadzki, M. J., Danube, C. L., & Shields, S. A. (2014). Using experiential learning to increase the recognition of everyday sexism as harmful: The WAGES intervention. Journal of Social Issues, 70(4), 703-721.  

Howell, J. L., Redford, L., Pogge, G., & Ratliff, K. A. (2017). Defensive responding to IAT feedback. Social Cognition, 35(5), 520-562. 

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 4, 193-212. 

Shields, S. A., Zawadzki, M. J., & Johnson, R. N. (2011). The impact of the Workshop Activity for Gender Equity Simulation in the Academy (WAGES-Academic) in demonstrating cumulative effects of gender bias. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 4(2), 120–129.