Does unconscious bias training work? The evidence says it does

Women listening in training session

Lisa Jobson is a specialist in talent management and management consulting and has extensive experience in supporting businesses to determine focus and the strategic importance of diversity.

A 2017 Glassdoor survey found that 35% of hiring professionals were planning on increasing investment in diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs. In 2019, 64% of US workers noted their companies were investing in D&I, and in the same year, D&I job postings increased by 106% in the UK.

Businesses are providing unconscious bias training for employees as a part of buying into the benefits of increased D&I. This training helps staff overcome prejudices that are acted upon unconsciously in order to overcome inequality in the workplace.

There have been recent reports that a number of Conservative MPs will refuse unconscious bias training and comments from prominent alt-right individuals such as Jordan Peterson arguing that unconscious bias training is anti-free-speech, unfairly labels individuals as biased, or simply does not work. The evidence, however, shows that it does work, and that many critics’ assertions are far from the truth. If unconscious bias training is done well, it is an important part of ensuring that people are treated respectfully and fairly at work.

Unconscious bias is proven to exist

Firstly, many studies utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans have shown that unconscious biases exist within the brain. Typically, scans show that people display more emotional, negative unconscious responses to those that were unlike them (the outgroup) as opposed to those they had more in common with (their ingroup). This is unconscious bias in action.

For example, in one 2004 study, when shown Black or White faces for 30-millisecond intervals, the amygdala (the region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes) of Caucasian subjects showed greater activation when Black faces were shown, which indicated an increased emotional response to those in the outgroup. A study in 2009 showed that individuals’ brains displayed a strong emotional response when shown videos of ingroup individuals receiving painful stimulation; this response was not displayed when participants were shown outgroup individuals experiencing the same pain.

The same disparity between kneejerk emotional responses towards ingroup and outgroup individuals has been shown to occur across increased threat perception, feelings of schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), and understanding others’ mindsets. All these biases are implicit; they happen unconsciously.

What the research says about the effectiveness of unconscious bias training

Overcoming unconscious bias is crucial if we want workplaces to be fair, equal places where people can succeed, allowing businesses to make the most of the talent available to them – learn more about unconscious bias in the workplace here. Unconscious bias training is the answer, and there is a large body of evidence that shows that it is indeed effective.

A research report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018 evaluated 18 academic investigations that focused on the efficacy of unconscious bias training. They found that, overall, training interventions:

  • increased participants’ awareness of unconscious bias
  • reduced the strength of unconscious bias (though did not completely neutralize it)
  • weakly reduced the strength of explicit bias (although the precise measurement of explicit bias was found to be lacking in all studies)
  • may or may not change behaviors (this is due to there being insufficient research available and existing research utilizing low-validity research evaluation methods)

The research concluded that the most effective means of raising awareness and reducing bias were using the Implicit Association Test (IAT) coupled with a debrief, educating staff on unconscious bias theory, long-term training programs, and interactive workshops.

An oft-cited study by critics is that of the 2019 University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School study. In it, researchers partnered with a large business and provided a single session of inclusive leadership workplace training to 3,016 employees. The results showed that women and ethnic minority participants showed the greatest change in perceptions and behavior, compared to white men, who showed only limited improvements. In essence, those more likely to experience bias were more likely to respond to the training.

It is worth noting, however, that the study did not look at the effects of longer-term training, or how a company’s culture might be affected by significant numbers of staff having an increased understanding of equality, diversity, and inclusion. Indeed, single sessions can sometimes be used as a cynical exercise to limit corporate risk as opposed to a means of creating truly equal workplaces. In EW Group’s experience, long-term change only occurs when efforts are concerted and embedded into company policy and processes.

Why critics argue that such training limits personal freedom

Critics of unconscious bias training argue that it is anti-free-speech, and that it can lead to individuals being unfairly called out and hounded due to their personal, unconscious views. This might be the case for some training courses, but in our experience, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

When planned and performed correctly, training should never force a participant to change their views or make them feel uncomfortable. It should be grounded in data, inclusive and understanding of diverse beliefs, and used primarily as an educational exercise, not an accusatory punishment.

In one example of EW Group’s work, we performed an analysis of a business’ recruitment and selection processes; the company had recently been taken to an employment tribunal. We forensically analyzed the company’s practices, interviewed and worked alongside a great number of staff, and used this insight to craft recommendations which the company implemented. One of these proposals was training for staff involved in recruitment. The effects were then measured over several years, during which diverse staff representation increased dramatically at all levels of the business.

At no point in the process or training was any member of staff called sexist, racist, or otherwise. Instead, we simply provided practical steps, grounded in data, that staff could take. Understanding was at the heart of every recommendation and action taken – a far cry from notions of autocratic re-education so often espoused by critics.

Unconscious bias training works. It has been used by countless organizations to improve representation and inclusivity, and they have enjoyed enviable benefits as a result. Some are even exploring new ways to deliver the content and impact to their teams, including by using virtual reality technology. From the number and nature of cases of harassment and the lack of representation in government and the wider business landscape, it would suggest that MPs need to think carefully about how to tackle racism and sexism and ensure that they play their part in building an inclusive working environment, just like other leaders. Learn more about our unconscious bias training services, or contact our experts.

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