By Marie-Claire Chappet
If you’ve ever been on an airplane with a spare seat beside you, and you’ve watched the passengers come on the plane thinking, ‘oh no, not them, I don’t want to sit next to them…’, you’ve experienced unconscious bias,” says Risha Grant, a leading diversity and inclusion expert.
“Unconscious bias is a learnt behaviour from somewhere in our past,” she explains, “yet it is something we don’t question at all. We shrink when certain people come in the elevator, or make silent, almost unnoticed assumptions about others. Unconscious bias training is really going to the root of it and finally asking yourself: Why do I do that?”
The term implicit bias – often known as unconscious bias – was first coined back in 1995 by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. Known as RAT (Racism Awareness Training) in the UK in the 1980s, learning to unpick this has become a formalised process.
Now, Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) is instilled in almost all Fortune 500 Companies and has become a hot-button issue since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
Battling these ingrained prejudices is not just a moral crusade. In the working world, these silent assumptions are causing extremely wide ethnicity and gender pay gaps. A 2019 UK study showed that, on average, nearly one in four applicants from a ‘majority’ group (white, male) received a call-back from employers.
Ethnic minorities, with identical CVs and cover letters, needed to send 60% more applications in order to receive the same number of call-backs. As of 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that most ethnic groups earned less, on average, than their white British counterparts and that the ethnicity pay gap is at its starkest in London, where it stands at 23.8%.
The gender pay gap is also particularly bleak in large city corporations, according to Bloomberg Tax. The percentage of female partners at the so-called ‘Big Four’ firms range from 21% to 24%. In 2019, KPMG reported a gender pay gap of 39%, while at EY it was 32% . At Deloitte, women earn 35% less than men and at PwC, it it is 38%. This compared to a national average of 15.5% in 2020, according to the ONS. The gaps are even wider for ethnic minorities. Just three of KPMG’s UK partners are Black, that’s 0.5% of the total number of partners.
Gillian Arnold, Director of Tectre, a recruitment and diversity initiative that specialises in the STEM industries, has seen these biases in real time. The company was originally involved in recruitment for women in tech but has since pivoted into diversity and inclusion training after finding out just how staggering the prejudices against their candidates were.
“We were sending out great women to these jobs, excellent candidates,” she says. “Every time they came back without jobs. Almost every time a man was hired instead.”
Unpicking these snap judgements or unspoken assumptions – based on race, gender or any number of factors – seems like a no-brainer. Yet, in December 2020, the government announced it would be phasing out UBT in the civil service. Why? It seems like we are in dire need of it, right? Yet the reality is far more complex. A number of studies have found that UBT is ineffective in meeting its aims.
According to Frederick Herbert, a behavioural science researcher at the London School of Economics, UBT has four main goals: “To increase knowledge of the existence and impact of negative implicit associations; to reduce negative implicit associations; to change explicit attitudes; and to change behaviours in such a way that those who attend exhibit significant reductions in prejudice.”
In his expansive research, Herbert has found that only the first aim – knowledge – is actually successfully met. He argues that this is still worthwhile – after all, getting people to accept and understand certain uncomfortable truths is an important first step – but notes that the long-term effectiveness of UBT is questionable.
In 2018, a Harvard paper looked at various studies of diversity training and found that it produced very little long-term impact. It cites one study of 985 anti-bias interventions that showed little change had been instilled and, in one experiment, seemed to reveal that subjects had learnt how to “game” the training by simply answering the way they knew would get a higher score, as opposed to actually learning anything from the process. The same year, a report from the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission found that while it raised awareness of gender bias, evidence for racial bias change was limited.
In fact, academic and governmental investigations into the efficacy of UBT – such as a Harvard study carried out by the American Psychological Association and a report by the Equality of Human Rights Commission – have found that it often has an unintended negative impact. It made employees complacent about their own biases, stoked anger and defensiveness in many white employees and actually reinforces negative stereotypes.
Unconscious bias training takes time
Despite delivering UBT programmes themselves, neither Grant nor Arnold seem surprised by these findings. Both say that UBT is essential, but that it is the way it is more broadly applied which is deeply flawed. If companies will only pay lip service to UBT and not run effective, long-term programmes to really engage with it, then it is little wonder these training sessions are being deemed unsuccessful.
“Training can’t just be 90 minutes and it has to be given to everyone in a workplace – especially people involved in recruitment,” says Arnold, “I have seen too many companies think a one-off session will be enough to tick a box. It doesn’t work that way. You need to ingrain this training in a programme over time, repeat it, get everyone involved. Otherwise, of course, you are going to see poor results.”
The sad reality is, even after last summer’s surge in awareness, instead of committing to real, nuanced dismantling of systemic issues, companies are sticking a plaster on a gaping wound; opting for a quick performative blast as opposed to real sustained engagement. These are complex, ingrained problems that cannot be wished away by a short PowerPoint presentation.
Grant has explicitly tailored her own programme of diversity training over the past 25 years, to counteract the lacklustre view of UBT.
‘Instead of committing to real, nuanced dismantling of systemic issues, companies are sticking a plaster on a gaping wound.’
“For a start, I call it BS [it is actually short for bias synapses, not bullshit], not unconscious bias,” she says. “When people hear that, they switch off, they think it’s some academic term that has no relevance to them. But when I call it BS, then everybody's like, oh, OK, well, I get it – that's bullshit.”
Grant’s sessions involve a mix of frank, open forums and anonymous assessment, which she says work best when everyone comes to the training prepared to be honest and prepared to get uncomfortable. One of the pillars of her training is designed to expressly counter the idea that UBT stokes fear and defensiveness in white employees – by reinforcing the idea that everyone has their own BS.
“I lead with my own shortcomings; the fact that I'm Black and bisexual and have been doing this for 25 years, and I’m still trying to figure it out on a daily basis,” she laughs. “I own that I'm going to make mistakes. And so are you and we're going to have to give each other grace as we move through this. Nobody’s perfect.”
She says she opens up sessions by discussing her mistrust of white people, how her grandmother, growing up during segregation in the US, taught her to be fearful of white authority figures. She finds this vulnerability and honesty on her part helps others admit that, yes, they do cross the road when seeing a young, Black man in a hoodie or, yes, they do get afraid of Muslim passengers on planes. It is uncomfortable for all, but a discomfort needed to address and dismantle these preconceptions.
Alternative ways to tackle bias
Addressing an entrenched, invisible enemy will never be neatly tied up via a quick fix. It explains why many alternatives to UBT are already springing up.
Equity Sequence is a set of five questions you apply to every decision or action to be more inclusive. Although the training takes only two hours, it is designed to be a long-term integrated mindset, something you can easily take forward and seamlessly include in your working life. Or there is an Innovation Lab programme (called the The Inclusion Lab) – a separate approach, which is working to mitigate bias within structures and systems in the workplace, rather than attempting to reframe individual biases.
We are still waiting to see what replacement to UBT the government intends to use in the civil service but it would be encouraging if it were influenced by the current conversations on this topic – the need to move away from standalone training and towards a built-in, holistic approach. As Grant, Arnold and a wealth of experts advise, UBT should not be a rare “extra” but something as integral (and ongoing) to a manager, recruitment officer or employee’s training as health and safety.
It is also imperative that an awareness of unconscious bias and of inequity – along any line – is built into every stage of a company. Dr Nic Hammarling, Partner and Head of Diversity at inclusion training firm Pearn Kandola, advises regular monitoring, deep analysis of processes, such as promotion and retention, and ensuring that diversity is a factor in conversations about the future of a business at every level. The key to all of this is being proactive, not reactive.
Ultimately, UBT’s success or failure comes down to the motivations of those setting up the training. Are they box-ticking or truly redefining their company’s mindset? Diversity and unconscious bias training – whatever form it takes – is only effective if the people commissioning it are truly engaged. Without real commitment, it will always fail.
Lead image: Golden Pixels LLC / Alamy Stock Photo
Unconscious bias training can be flawed, but instead of abandoning training altogether, we need to develop long-term programmes and new alternatives that focus on action.
By Marie-Claire Chappet
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