Addressing the 5 Most Common Criticisms of Unconscious Bias and Diversity Training
Unconscious Bias (UB) refers to the stereotypes (both negative and positive) that we hold in our unconscious minds that may affect how we interact with other people and the world at large. Typically these are forms of prejudice and discrimination that we may not be aware of, or if we are aware of them, we may think that they don’t affect how we behave in the workplace.
Google’s recent controversy over diversity generated impassioned commentary and criticism - from both sides of the argument.
In recent years UB training has become popular as smart companies (like Google and Facebook) are realising that increased diversity has a positive effect on profitability. However, some critics of UB contend that it doesn’t have a strong affect on increasing diversity, and may actually harm efforts to reduce unconscious bias.
Just recently, one of Google’s software engineers made headlines when he distributed an anti-diversity memo “manifesto” of sorts. This 10-page document was initially distributed internally, but quickly went viral externally out on the wider Internet. The “manifesto” sharply criticised Google’s efforts at diversity and unconscious bias training and expressed biases such as:
“…The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” – Internal Google Memo
The end result was that the author was sacked from his position as an engineer because from a legal standpoint, he’d become a liability to the company for holding biased views of gender in the workplace.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a note to employees that said portions of the memo “violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” – Bloomberg
At Testgrid, we believe that most criticisms of Unconscious Bias training are unfounded for several reasons, and ultimately, the goal is not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, but to improve training quality and diversity outcomes.
In an effort to clarify, address, and to foster constructive debate we’ve explored some common unconscious bias training criticisms here:
1. “Unconscious bias training normalises bias and makes it more socially acceptable.”
One study demonstrated that UB training might actually normalise bias and make people much more likely to stereotype others because they’re told, “Everyone has bias”. This can make bias seem socially acceptable and may lessen the motivation to take action to avoid it. A well-researched method to overcome normalisation is by coupling this message with another:
“Yes, stereotyping is common”, but also: “A vast majority of people try to manage their biases and overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.”
This normalises a different message: “Yes bias may be common, but most people don’t want to discriminate – or be discriminated against – and you shouldn’t either.”
2. “You can’t train for something you can’t control,”
Another criticism of UB training is: “You can’t train for something you can’t control, so why bother learning about it?” Or, “Exposing unconscious bias won’t make it evaporate.”
A good response to the above criticism is that these risks only apply when organisations jump on UB training without making sure it’s being delivered correctly.
It’s true that simply learning about the existence of UB may not result in drastic behavioural improvements, but that’s why we also provide trainees with practical tools and specific strategies to actually do something about it.
When it comes to UB, there’s an important distinction to be made between ‘controlling’ and ‘managing’ behaviour. For example, in the case of workplace personality assessments, our personality preferences don’t tend to change much over time, but we can absolutely learn to manage our areas of lower preference more effectively.
Facebook has publicised their approach to this too: they don’t simply try to uncover UB; they arm their staff with ‘bias interrupters’ – concrete actions that everyone can take when they encounter an instance of bias in the workplace. Facebook’s practical approach ensures that employees have the behavioural ‘tools’ on hand when they need them.
Research has indicated that training individuals in both UB awareness AND practical strategies is highly effective. Organisations such as Google have consistently found that participants in its UB training leave with a greater motivation to mitigate bias in the workplace – because they have the tools and the knowledge to take action.
3. “Unconscious bias training makes people paranoid.”
Some contend that UB training may cultivate a paranoid relationship between employees; a situation wherein everyone believes that everyone else is prone to unconscious bias. We would disagree with this generalisation: one of the big positives of UB training is that it is blameless – everyone is told that they have it and can’t avoid it, so no-one gets singled out or needs to feel defensive. We are normalising bias, but not demonizing it.
The key is taking it that next step further: rather than just explaining that “We all have biases”, the next step is then, “Okay, so how can we now manage these biases in our everyday work lives?”
UB training may also reduce paranoia and defensiveness by explaining that we don’t have unconscious biases because we’re ‘bad’ people – we have them because we are simply people.
4. “Unconscious bias training is no ‘silver bullet’ to diversity.”
Research on UB training has also demonstrated that the effectiveness of the training depends on many factors including: content, length, audience, and – accompanying diversity efforts. Which is why it’s not really sufficient to deliver one single training session in isolation and hope that it will work like a ‘silver bullet’.
UB training also needs to be fully aligned with the organisation’s broader diversity efforts and strategies. This means that training sessions will therefore be more relevant and memorable if they are tied closely to business goals and tailored to the organisation.
At Testgrid, we usually encourage organisations to do some kind of follow up a few months down the track so that the learning outcomes stay fresh and relevant for all attendees.
5. “The UB training wasn’t relevant to my workplace.”
If UB training is not provided within the context of the specific organisation – it’s internal culture and business objectives – it may seem irrelevant and ineffective.
To make UB training more relevant and memorable, it’s better to organize and present training content around organisation-specific workplace scenarios that are typical to that organisation. Research shows that training is more successful when it is linked to current schemas, this is because we are cognitively linking the new information to previous experiences.
Want to know more about how unconscious bias training can increase diversity and improve your workplace culture? Contact us today.