Why Unconscious Bias Training Might Not be Making us More Inclusive

My most prized lessons in being able to confront my biases have emerged from unexpectedly intimate conversations I've had with people I generally don't socialise with. Has that happened to you, as well? I hope it has. Because when that happens, the message sticks in a way that makes us want to be inclusive, not resentful of having to be so.

In this context, a special story comes to my mind. A young man I was introduced to a couple years back had spent more than 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He had now luckily made his way to Australia and was trying to create a new life for himself. Hearing the length of his stay might be enough to evoke some degree of pity and sympathy. Or if we can muster it, even empathy. What we are likely to do less often is to see that 'refugee' as a person who might be capable, talented and energetic about their goals. As it happened, they did have goals. The man in question taught the children in their refugee camp for most of their stay there, and learned a lot about what children and teenagers needed to put themselves back on track after a trying childhood. They put their knowledge, skills and drive to immediate use in Australia, and got associated with an NFP to run their development program for disadvantaged African youth to find their way.

Fast forward to this June, I found myself travelling to Brisbane to conduct a workshop for women who were mostly from an asylum seeker and refugee background - not an audience I generally find myself in front of, so I was cautious that my assumptions needed to be kept in check. I quickly realised that these women had so much to offer and that not all of them were ready to play victim to their circumstances or their past. One of these women enlightened me when they shared what the word 'refugee' meant to them. For them, the word 'refugee' was a badge of honour! Any of us could be called a refugee sometime in life, and it meant we had faced adversity and come out on the other side still standing and ready to take life on. Being called a refugee was something to be proud of and all of us at some point are refugees. Let's not make it bigger than that. Needless to say, I was moved.

Here's an important question for us to think about. After these experiences, would I ever see a refugee the same way if I met them again? You guessed it, I don't think I would. Instead, I'll be curious to get to know them, listen to their story and give them every credit they deserved for their talents and skills. They won't need my pity for sure. Plus, I am now aware that I've been a refugee a few times in my life already. Even while I continued to have the privilege of living in my own country or as I chose travel to another one.

Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a decision.

At the same time, organisations can't wait for every employee to have a personal experience with all kinds of people they hold a bias against. That's especially not realistic for companies that work at scale and operate across multiple countries. Where does that leave us?

I am helping us ask FIVE key questions if you are either planning or already conduct unconscious bias trainings, and then outline SEVEN challenges to its potential efficacy.

ONE: What's the challenge of addressing bias at work?

Deloitte Insights in their report on the gap between diversity and inclusion confirm that, "The most popular solution today (to address bias) is training. But while such interventions are helpful, it appears that making people aware is not enough. Organizations should consider making structural changes, implementing transparent, data-driven solutions, and immersing executives in the world of bias to give them a visceral understanding of how bias impacts decision making, talent decisions, and business outcomes." Unconscious bias training doesn't always hit those targets, it scratches the surface and agitates the current culture, but without necessarily providing a way to navigate that cultural agitation.

There’s certainly been an “explosion” in the need for awareness about unconscious bias, says Diversity Council Australia CEO, Lisa Annese. Organisations, looking to improve diversity know that there’s no simple solution and that tackling unconscious bias is one tool of many that can help, she says. “You’ve got to then take a broader approach in diversity, because people need to have a reason to change. Just understanding your unconscious biases and how they play out isn’t enough."

While we have some good news for example, in Australia, on the front of gender equality and the pay gap, it's not nearly enough given the conversation surrounding it and the assurance by organisations of actively addressing such issues. We are still far behind on ethnic and racial diversity and often don't fully engage in conversations about people with disabilities and the LGBTIQ representation in organisations.

Under such pressure, the world of business has a propensity to look for a quick and doable solution to prickly issues. 

Unconscious bias training is one of the most popular options to address bias, stereotyping and prejudice inside organisations that stall diversity efforts and hinder the execution of well intentioned policies and programs.

TWO: Where are we at with diversity program investments?

In US alone, the Inclusion & Diversity training and program spend is in excess of $8 billion! Most countries are investing millions of dollars in gender diversity and unconscious bias training efforts. Also, in hiring I&D specialists to head newly formed teams, so they can level the playing field for women and minorities. There are compelling reasons of persistent inequality and systemic bias that drive these astronomical investments. Not to mention, pressure caused by costly talent loss, public backlash and an ever watchful media.

When you throw this much money at a problem, you expect to see the situation turn around. Yet, the results after a decade of focus by major global corporations on I&D efforts are not as remarkable as one would hope to see.

*In one of the most comprehensive studies, researchers looked at more than three decades of data on diversity initiatives at hundreds of companies across the U.S. to determine their impact.

Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, one of the researchers who spearheaded that study, shared the outcomes. To their surprise, the researchers found that it was hard to say, if after three decades of I&D programs, there was any measurable change, one way or another.

The researchers found a clear pattern in the data, one of them was to do with programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations). These were not followed by increases in diversity. (*source: Fast Company. Frank Dobbin, 'Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies')

THREE: Does unconscious bias training help reduce bias among employees?

With such intense focus on debiasing efforts, what works and what doesn't, is a good question to ask? One of the most popular tools used within unconscious bias training programs is the IAT or the Implicit Association Test. Project Implicit was founded in 1998 by three scientists – Tony Greenwald (University of Washington), Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University), and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia). While it's used extensively in organisations today, one of the authors, Banaji, cautions us on how even she does not endorse training programs based on the IAT or those teaching it without deep knowledge of the science behind it, some of which is still evolving. Instead, she calls her educational efforts, seminars. Banaji insightfully shares,

"I use the tool to make an important point: we all have preferences or biases. And that there may be nothing wrong with having a preference or bias in one direction or another. Many of our preferences are very helpful, and we might even want to grow them to be stronger. I would like to grow my preference for vegetables, for example, to be greater than it is....When the audience is comfortable with the idea that we have biases, and that we even should like that we have these biases, I teach them more."

Often the IAT in a classroom setting takes a very different turn. It focuses on our biases that lead to potential discrimination and likely stops at that rude awakening to how we might secretly and subconsciously associate men with career and women with family. Then the audience is shared the undesirable effects of such a bias and how we need to watch out for discriminating on the basis of what we didn't even know we held as a belief. The success of such a perilous effort now depends entirely on the skill, knowledge and awareness of the facilitator. Often, the message of such trainings can get lost in the shock and awe of finding out how much more biased we are than we earlier knew or imagined ourselves to be. Mostly, the audience doesn't get over their resentment for being herded into a mandatory or reactionary training, and then told that they are more biased than they believed themselves to be. No one then has the time or mechanism to deal with potential and individual guilt, shame or anger at such realisations over a couple hours of training.

FOUR: What do companies mean when they ask for an unconscious bias training?

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski write a fabulous critique based on years of experience of having seen numerous designs and content of debiasing initiatives and programs. One of the telling parts of this article says, "Typically an organisation's request is like this: “We would like to have a 1 to 3 hour session that is entertaining, eye-opening, convincing, based on science but not with scientific content, and that does not put the leaders and employees on the spot — they just need to be more aware of bias.” "The other tendency is a fatigue around unconscious bias awareness (similar to the tendency of gender fatigue found in many organisations). Say the words “unconscious bias” and many people now roll their eyes."

It appears as if we are stuck in the middle of entertaining, not so scientific, programs and ones that do have a lot of evidence and leave employees little chance to escape, entertaining or not.

Most employees take a deep breath as they are sent in for diversity training by many large organisations. Giants of tech, accounting and retail have mandatory unconscious bias programs. Even if you have a smart name for them, at the end of the day the message is clear - you are biased and you need to fix this.

FIVE: What goes wrong with unconscious bias training and programs?

A few things have gone wrong with unconscious bias training. I am listing the key ones that are research based outcomes, and a few that I intuitively feel would make most employees disengage.

#1 Mandatory training

We all know this intuitively and through experience - human beings don't respond well to control or coercion. First, it makes people anxious that they are being fixed because they are broken and that they can no longer be themselves. In fact, they will likely be judged harshly for having attended a training and still found transgressing. Second, and this is a more dangerous kind of damage - that of reinforcing feelings of privilege, resentment and revengefulness towards those who seem to have foisted such trainings upon us - women and underrepresented groups. Remember the infamous 10 page Google diversity manifesto that tumbled out in public domain in 2017 written by an 'eye rolling' employee, most probably? While still unwise and a bit misinformed, it seems eerily close to the kind of counterproductive outcome researchers have been warning us about.

#2 Reactionary approaches

When an organisation is caught in a storm, they move quickly to quell public outrage and do damage control to their stock price and customer base. Not to say that they don't have any honesty involved, but that reactionary approaches can come across as token and not heart-centred. The telling case of Starbucks last year is a great example when two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia asked for the bathroom key without having made a purchase while waiting for a business associate to arrive. Starbucks employees called the police, eventually leading to the two men being arrested and escorted out. Howard Schulz, the CEO of Starbucks, quickly got into action and famously shut down 8,000 US coffee shops for the afternoon to provide racial bias training to all of its employees. For their own sakes, I really hope they did a great job. Because this is the kind of situation from where resentment, fear and employee backlash can emerge instead of reducing bias and cultivating inclusion.

#3 Naming it unconscious bias or bias awareness training

It seems there is a risk in naming a training as such because it's going to trigger connotations/associations in the unconscious mind that activates counterproductive feelings, like, ‘I am going to be fixed’ (anxiety) or ‘I’ll lose privilege, status, and power.’ (loss-aversion bias) or 'Now I’ll get them and show them how wrong they are.’ (revenge). Framing the effort to reduce or mitigate bias is important. It's still uncommon to find unconscious bias training as an embedded part of leadership programs or performance development training programs. The meaning we attach to words changes how we feel about the overall effort. Even if researchers hadn't told us this, you might agree, this is communication basics, and we've known it all along.

#4 The training is done out of context

Another important piece of research is that when you craft training content that is disconnected with actual work scenarios, it misses the mark. Very often, unconscious bias training is outsourced by organisations. Most programs begin with one of these two popular slides - we are bombarded by millions of bits of data, so we use heuristics or short cuts to make sense of our world, in a nutshell, we use bias to function. The other is about legal obligations and negative motivators, and how being biased can get companies sued and employees fired. I'd be scared for sure, but might not go out feeling inclusive. Realistically speaking, not all consultants might be willing to build customised content for each client, and even if they did, the organisation might be unwilling to foot the bill. Debiasing efforts are more likely to show positive outcomes when they emerge proactively from within the organisation and are rich in context and language that is already familiar to employees.

#5 'High prevalence of unconscious bias' approach

Human beings are curious creatures, so when you tell them that there is high prevalence of a behaviour, in the hope that they will reduce that behaviour, they do the opposite. There is evidence to prove that our brains tend to repeat behaviours that we see as already prevalent. We want to be part of the majority, not the minority. We reason, if so many people are already doing something, it wouldn't hurt if I did just a little bit of it, too. We want to do what everyone else is doing, not what very few are doing. Most unconscious bias trainings emphasise how bias is all pervasive, that we are biased without exception, and that we need to watch for it and reduce it. Guess what, we are tempted to do the opposite! There is a risk employees might go out with an unconscious message to repeat biased behaviours instead of reducing them. Good intentions gone awry, you might say.

#6 We are all responsible, so no one is accountable

The term unconscious is a tricky one. It signifies behaviours we are not conscious of, and hence, can't possibly be aware of or held responsible for. In essence, I am a passive actor in being biased. How do you catch bias when you don't even know you are biased and what about exactly? So, the easy way out is to relinquish personal responsibility and not do anything about it. I find it dangerous to unwittingly suggest to a bunch of employees that they didn't do anything that was prejudiced or even bigoted, in fact, they aren't even in control. Forces out of their control made them behave in ways that were unfair to others and put them down. You can see how this is not going down a good path. Unconscious bias training efforts need to strike a delicate balance between why we aren't bad people for being biased, but that we are accountable to behave in a fair and respectful manner, nevertheless.

#7 Too much focus on people, too little on processes

Even if I&D teams had the best intentions while conducting bias awareness training, they can't avoid also dealing with their current organisational culture and systemic issues. Bias does not flourish for no reason and without support. Crucial processes such as performance reviews, promotions, task force selections, overseas assignments and recruitment generally evolve over time to reflect the sum total of its workforce and leadership beliefs. To assume that all of these processes are fair and square because well laid out policies or good intentions say so, is being naive. For example, while writing job descriptions or advertising for roles, “Even subtle word choices can have a strong impact on the application pool,” says Francesca Gino a Professor at Harvard. Research shows that masculine language, including adjectives like “competitive” and “determined,” results in women’s “perceiving that they would not belong in the work environment.” On the other hand, words like “collaborative” and “cooperative” tend to draw more women than men.

Debiasing is very tough, if not impossible, to accomplish without focusing on at least some of these challenges, if not all. Without that, organisations can continue to pump money, resources and people into diversity efforts and not see the fruits of their labour.

Being inclusive might need something more involved and intimate than just a spate of unconscious bias trainings. Leaders across the board need to develop Inclusive Leadership skills that allow for an open, brave and vulnerable conversation on differences. These leaders can set the tone for the team to face their fears, hesitations and biases around differences and that diversity makes them stronger as a team. Then if the team were to receive the message on how we are all biased and there are pros and cons to it, there's a greater likelihood that they'd be more keen to understand and learn, and not get more biased or disengaged due to such trainings.

Inclusion works best in an environment of safety and openness.

I look forward to hearing how your experience has been at your organisation on unconscious bias training, any measurements you have done and to add to the conversation here.