So the UK government has now scrapped any unconscious bias training across all government departments. Is this a wise thing to do in light of the challenges we have in diversity and inclusion? What are the key reasons for this change of direction and how do we support a diverse workforce?
Firstly, let us remind ourselves what unconscious bias is. Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favour of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. The most common biases are race, gender, sexual orientation and age.
Organisations have been tasked to address the issue of diversity, and one intervention has been the introduction of unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias training programs are designed to expose people to their implicit biases, provide tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking, and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviours.
So does the training not work then?
We have to consider does it create behavioural change? And there seems to be insufficient evidence that diversity training impacts this (Atewologun et al, 2018). Implicit changes may occur but will not necessarily change explicit and behaviour, Forscher (2017) says. "So if there's little evidence to show that changing implicit bias is a useful way of changing those behaviours”. And this is why the UK Government have scrapped all Unconscious Bias Training (UBT). They concluded that the UBT has no evidence for changing attitudes and that it can "backfire" and create a negative response. The negative impact of this training is usually created by making the training mandatory, research that looked at over 800 US companies found that mandatory training either had no impact on changes of women in leadership or reduced it (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016).
So what are the alternatives and approach to unconscious bias training?
Companies that have had the most positive impact on diversity is those that focus on tactics that don’t control and create empowerment for the diversity challenges (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016). Some of these tactics are engagement with your employees and social accountability.
Firstly, create engagement by highlighting the concern on diversity in a positive way, create ways of using the people in the organisation to help solve the problem. Have facilitated open forums to educate but also to canvas ways to overcome the diversity inequality. This potentially can create diversity champions within the manager pool, who are empowered to act and align to good practice and ensure that the change is a behavioural one (CIPD, 2015).
Another aspect is to consider social accountability, however this potentially does play to the ‘social desirability bias response’ (this is where we comply with those around us, so viewed favourably), but can be effective. It is about making people aware that their actions will be transparent in a positive way, for example in recruitment or progression process. This was demonstrated with Deloitte, where they introduced a more transparent monitoring of career progression of women, since they had an issue of women leaving the organisation before they made partner. Over a number of years this had a great impact, and by 2015 21% of Deloitte’s global partners were women, with their target at 40% for 2030.
How are you trying to create a diverse and more inclusive workforce?
Atewologun, D., Cornish, T., &; Tresh, F. (2018). Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness. Equality and Human Rights Commission; Girod, S., Fassiotto, M., Grewal, D., Ku, M. C., Sriram, N., Nosek, B. A., &; Valantine, H. (2016). Reducing implicit gender leadership bias in academic medicine with an educational intervention. Academic Medicine, 91(8), 1143-1150.
CIPD Survey report. Gender diversity in the boardroom: Reach for the top (2015).
Dobbin, F., &; Kalev, A. (2016). Why diversity programs fail. HBR, 94(7/8), 52-60.
Forscher, P.S., LAI, C.K., AXT, J.R., Ebersole, C.R., Herman, M., Devine, P.G. and Nosek, B.A., 2019. A meta-analysis of procedures to change implicit measures. Journal of personality and social psychology, 117(3), pp. 522-559.