What unconscious bias training gets wrong… and how to fix it

Good overview on the latest research and lessons. Main conclusion, no quick fix, has to be part of ongoing training and awareness:

Here’s a fact that cannot be disputed: if your name is James or Emily, you will find it easier to get a job than someone called Tariq or Adeola. Between November 2016 and December 2017, researchers sent out fake CVs and cover letters for 3,200 positions. Despite demonstrating exactly the same qualifications and experience, the “applicants” with common Pakistani or Nigerian names needed to send out 60% more applications to receive the same number of callbacks as applicants with more stereotypically British names.

Some of the people who had unfairly rejected Tariq or Adeola will have been overtly racist, and so deliberately screened people based on their ethnicity. According to a large body of psychological research, however, many will have also reacted with an implicit bias, without even being aware of the assumptions they were making.

Such findings have spawned a plethora of courses offering “unconscious bias and diversity training”, which aim to reduce people’s racist, sexist and homophobic tendencies. If you work for a large organisation, you’ve probably taken one yourself. Last year, Labour leader Keir Starmer volunteered to undergo such training after he appeared to dismiss the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. “There is always the risk of unconscious bias, and just saying: ‘Oh well, it probably applies to other people, not me,’ is not the right thing to do,” he said. Even Prince Harry has been educating himself about his potential for implicit bias – and advising others to do the same.

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? You remind people of their potential for prejudice so they can change their thinking and behaviour. Yet there is now a severe backlash against the very idea of unconscious bias and diversity training, with an increasing number of media articles lamenting these “woke courses” as a “useless” waste of money. The sceptics argue that there is little evidence that unconscious bias training works, leading some organisations – including the UK’s civil service – to cancel their schemes.

So what’s the truth? Is it ever possible to correct our biases? And if so, why have so many schemes failed to make a difference?

While the contents of unconscious bias and diversity training courses vary widely, most share a few core components. Participants will often be asked to complete the implicit association test (IAT), for example. By measuring people’s reaction times during a word categorisation task, an algorithm can calculate whether people have more positive or negative associations with a certain group – such as people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. (You can try it for yourself on the Harvard website.)

After taking the IAT, participants will be debriefed about their results. They may then learn about the nature of unconscious bias and stereotypes more generally, and the consequences within the workplace, along with some suggestions to reduce the impact.

All of which sounds useful in theory. To confirm the benefits, however, you need to compare the attitudes and behaviours of employees who have taken unconscious bias and diversity training with those who have not – in much the same way that drugs are tested against a placebo.

Prof Edward Chang at Harvard Business School has led one of the most rigorous trials, delivering an hour-long online diversity course to thousands of employees at an international professional services company. Using tools like the IAT, the training was meant to educate people about sexist stereotypes and their consequences – and surveys suggest that it did change some attitudes. The participants reported greater acknowledgment of their own bias after the course, and greater support of women in the workplace, than people who had taken a more general course on “psychological safety” and “active listening”.

Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to the profound behavioural change you might expect. Three weeks after taking the course, the employees were given the chance of taking part in an informal mentoring scheme. Overall, the people who had taken the diversity course were no more likely to take on a female mentee. Six weeks after taking the course, the participants were also given the opportunity to nominate colleagues for recognition of their “excellence”. It could have been the perfect opportunity to offer some encouragement to overlooked women in the workplace. Once again, however, the people who had taken the diversity training were no more likely to nominate a female colleague than the control group.

“We did our best to design a training that would be effective,” Chang tells me. “But our results suggest that the sorts of one-off trainings that are commonplace in organisations are not particularly effective at leading to long-lasting behaviour change.”

Chang’s results chime with the broader conclusions of a recent report by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which examined 18 papers on unconscious bias training programmes. Overall, the authors concluded that the courses are effective at raising awareness of bias, but the evidence of long-lasting behavioural change is “limited”.

Even the value of the IAT – which is central to so many of these courses – has been subject to scrutiny. The courses tend to use shortened versions of the test, and the same person’s results can vary from week to week. So while it might be a useful educational aid to explain the concept of unconscious bias, it is wrong to present the IAT as a reliable diagnosis of underlying prejudice.

It certainly sounds damning; little wonder certain quarters of the press have been so willing to declare these courses a waste of time and money. Yet the psychologists researching their value take a more nuanced view, and fear their conclusions have been exaggerated. While it is true that many schemes have ended in disappointment, some have been more effective, and researchers believe we should learn from these successes and failures to design better interventions in the future – rather than simply dismissing them altogether.

For one thing, many of the current training schemes are simply too brief to have the desired effect. “It’s usually part of the employee induction and lasts about 30 minutes to an hour,” says Dr Doyin Atewologun, a co-author of the EHRC’s report and founding member of British Psychological Society’s diversity and inclusion at work group. “It’s just tucked away into one of the standard training materials.” We should not be surprised the lessons are soon forgotten. In general, studies have shown that diversity training can have more pronounced effects if it takes place over a longer period of time. A cynic might suspect that these short programmes are simple box-ticking exercises, but Atewologun thinks the good intentions are genuine – it’s just that the organisations haven’t been thinking critically about the level of commitment that would be necessary to bring about change, or even how to measure the desired outcomes.

Thanks to this lack of forethought, many of the existing courses may have also been too passive and theoretical. “If you are just lecturing at someone about how pervasive bias is, but you’re not giving them the tools to change, I think there can be a tendency for them to think that bias is normal and thus not something they need to work on,” says Prof Alex Lindsey at the University of Memphis. Attempts to combat bias could therefore benefit from more evidence-based exercises that increase participants’ self-reflection, alongside concrete steps for improvement.

Lindsey’s research team recently examined the benefits of a “perspective-taking” exercise, in which participants were asked to write about the challenges faced by someone within a minority group. They found that the intervention brought about lasting changes to people’s attitudes and behavioural intentions for months after the training. “We might not know exactly what it’s like to be someone of a different race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation from ourselves, but everyone, to some extent, knows what it feels like to be excluded in a social situation,” Lindsey says. “Once trainees realise that some people face that kind of ostracism on a more regular basis as a result of their demographic characteristics, I think that realisation can lead them to respond more empathetically in the future.”

Lindsey has found that you should also encourage participants to reflect on the ways their own behaviour may have been biased in the past, and to set themselves future goals during their training. Someone will be much more likely to act in an inclusive way if they decide, in advance, to challenge any inappropriate comments about a minority group, for example. This may be more powerful still, he says, if there is some kind of follow-up to check in with participants’ progress – an opportunity that the briefer courses completely miss. (Interestingly, he has found that these reflective techniques can be especially effective among people who are initially resistant to the idea of diversity training.)

More generally, these courses may often fail to bring about change because people become too defensive about the very idea that they may be prejudiced. Without excusing the biases, the courses might benefit from explaining how easily stereotypes can be absorbed – even by good, well-intentioned people – while also emphasising the individual responsibility to take action. Finally, they could teach people to recognise the possibility of “moral licensing”, in which an ostensibly virtuous act, such as attending the diversity course itself, or promoting someone from a minority, excuses a prejudiced behaviour afterwards, since you’ve already “proven” yourself to be a liberal and caring person. 

Ultimately, the psychologists I’ve spoken to all agree that organisations should stop seeing unconscious bias and diversity training as a quick fix, and instead use it as the foundation for broader organisational change.

“Anyone who has been in any type of schooling system knows that even the best two- or three-hour class is not going to change our world for ever,” says Prof Calvin Lai, who investigates implicit bias at Washington University in St Louis. “It’s not magic.” But it may act as a kind of ice-breaker, he says, helping people to be more receptive to other initiatives – such as those aimed at a more inclusive recruitment process.

Chang agrees. “Diversity training is unlikely to be an effective standalone solution,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an effective component of a multipronged approach to improving diversity, equity and inclusion in organisations.”

Atewologun compares it to the public health campaigns to combat obesity and increase fitness. You can provide people with a list of the calories in different foods and the benefits of exercise, she says – but that information, alone, is unlikely to lead to significant weight loss, without continued support that will help people to act on that information. Similarly, education about biases can be a useful starting point, but it’s rather absurd to expect that ingrained habits could evaporate in a single hour of education.

“We could be a lot more explicit that it is step one,” Atewologun adds. “We need multiple levels of intervention – it’s an ongoing project.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/apr/25/what-unconscious-bias-training-gets-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it

After Election, Diversity Trainers Face A New Version Of ‘Us Versus Them’ : NPR

Interesting story on how some US diversity consultants are assessing the impact of the election:

[Dorcas] Lind is a diversity consultant in the health care industry. It’s her job to go into companies and help them create inclusive environments for their employees.

For consultants like Lind, the election’s polarizing nature, which especially divided the nation on issues of race, is two-fold. While it means some of their business will almost certainly boom, a new set of challenges emerges for the professional peacemakers. Now, they say, they have to work harder to tamp down heightened feelings of us versus them; they have to hear the concerns of people usually thought of as privileged; and they have to navigate a language minefield where the wrong word can ignite conflict.

Studying the maps of how people voted, Lind was disturbed by the stretch of red in her district, a New Jersey suburb, which she said had once been celebrated for its diversity. Like many others in the business, Lind equated a vote for Trump with a vote for intolerance.

“I thought that my whole career had blown up in front of me,” said Lind, who has worked in the field for more than two decades and is founder and president of Diversity Health Communications. “I felt so absolutely overwhelmed with the depth of how much work had to be done. And on the other hand, I felt like I didn’t even want to do the work. … Given the results and how the map looked, I felt my work would be futile.”

“There’s a whole toolkit of language we need to create [in order] to talk about this polarization,” Lind said. “It’s those who voted for Trump or support Trump — and everyone else. And that’s a really difficult dichotomy to address.”

Luby Ismail is the head of Connecting Cultures, a diversity consulting business in the Washington, D.C., area. She said one of her biggest tasks is to break down any feelings that people are on warring sides. Ismail, who’s an Egyptian-American Muslim, has worked with companies including The Walt Disney Co., Nike Inc. and Sodexo to lead sessions that help employees better understand Arab-Americans and American Muslims.

The Department of Justice uses one of Ismail’s training videos on identifying anti-Muslim bias as part of its cultural competence curriculum. She’s updating the DOJ training now, but she said she’s not sure what will come of it after Inauguration Day.

That “us-versus-them” sentiment Ismail mentioned is particularly tough to manage now. Doug Harris heads The Kaleidoscope Group, a diversity company in Chicago. He said that he has to help people of color deal with “historical garbage” — he means racism — while also helping white people who, he learned during this campaign, feel strongly that they’re “out of the power base.”

Usually, Harris uses an exercise he calls “insiders and outsiders” to get people to self-reflect. In this exercise, employees list who might feel like outsiders in the company. Maybe it’s new workers or people at lower levels or people who have English as a second language or introverts, Harris said. Inevitably, the list turns to women and people of color.

White people as a group, and particularly men, don’t typically make that list. But the presidential campaign, Harris said, unearthed the strong sentiment among white people that “they don’t feel like the lead group that’s been privileged, and if you look at their lives, they’re not.”

Those who do diversity, he said, have a responsibility to address everyone’s concerns. “It’s not about a special effort toward white men,” he said. “That’s not the effort I’m talking about. It’s more-so that … if you honor everybody’s challenges, they’re more likely to own their privileges.”

Lind adds an amendment to that thought, one that underscores the tension diversity consultants, like the rest of the country, are tasked with resolving. Longstanding racial discord, fueled by the “historical garbage” Harris mentioned, collides with the idea of honoring everybody’s challenges when some of those challenges spring from racial ignorance and racism. Thinking of all challenges as equal, she said, is a problem.

“I think the backlash we’re seeing is people who work in the diversity space — and also civil rights folks in general — are saying, ‘We are not going to be inclusive of ideas and values that are explicitly detrimental and harmful,’ ” Lind said. “Because the rhetoric is, ‘One side has lost, one side has won, and everybody needs to get together and move forward for all Americans in the country.’ ”

Walking that line of competing interests is made even tougher by the language of diversity, including the word diversity itself. Leah P. Hollis, president of Patricia Berkly LLC in Philadelphia, said she actively avoids language that might be polarizing so she can keep everyone in the conversation. After all, in a swing state like Pennsylvania, where nearly 6 million people voted and Trump won by fewer than 70,000 votes, she has to assume that half of the employees she’ll be working with voted for Trump, half for Clinton. So figuring out what tone to strike is important.