The Problem with Unconscious Bias Training

Us humans can be an irrational bunch. On one hand we know that we shouldn’t smoke, we should
exercise more, eat less sugar and start a pension when we’re young – yet while knowing that our
behaviour is self-sabotaging, we still do all the wrong things.

And therein lies the challenge for unconscious bias training; while it makes sense at a logical level, its potential to impact behaviours and attitudes is limiting.

Bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice towards or against something or someone. We all have them, they are the product of our life experiences and hark back to a time when such bias was imperative for our survival.

Our brains are primed to make split second decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. The problem is that when those assumptions are based on both positive and negative stereotypes, they lead to poor and often discriminatory decision making.

Without the right context, training may only serve to make people compliant. It can even breed
resentment and cause more problems than it solves. This is especially true when such training is
mandated for employees, as if the responsibility to remedy the situation is theirs, yet fundamental
flaws in an organisations culture or systems go unchallenged.

So, how does an organisation create the right climate for unconscious bias training to be effective?

Negative stereotypes arise from ignorance or anxiety over not understanding differences. Therefore, the best way to challenge such stereotypes is direct exposure to the subject of our preconceptions.

In practical terms that can mean actively hiring or promoting more diverse candidates.
Research shows that when we can re-categorise others according to shared features or
characteristics, we are more likely to see them as part of our tribe and are less likely to experience
prejudicial thoughts.

Neuroplasticity - the ability of our brain to reorganize itself throughout our life, due to our
experiences – suggests that the way we categorise others is more malleable than we imagine. With the right stimulus, i.e. getting to know people as real people rather than ethnicity, age or gender, we can effectively re-wire our brain.

Research from MIT suggests that organizations with meritocratic values are often the worst
offenders of bias, specifically as it relates to gender; favouring men over women who perform
equally, particularly in terms of bonus or career opportunities. Conversely, organizations that value individual autonomy showed no such difference, leading researchers to conclude that merit-based pay practices, in particular, may fail to achieve race or gender-neutral outcomes.

Ironically, it appears that when managers work for meritocratic organizations, they believe they are more impartial, and unconsciously act on their biases.

While it is very difficult to entirely eliminate our bias, we can make it easier for our biased minds to make fair decisions. The best approach is to limit the opportunities for bias to be triggered, by
engineering it out of systems and processes.

Most people have heard of the blind orchestra auditions, in which candidates auditioned behind a screen. Even when the screen was only used for the preliminary round, it had a powerful impact; researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the finals.

Unconscious bias training has its place, but it is not a silver bullet to solve challenges of diversity
which organisations face. It is far more successful in environments where diversity exists,
highlighting our tendency to stereotype rather than making us more open to embracing diversity.