Where unconscious bias training fails to support gender equality

By Women's Agenda

August 16, 2016

Unconscious bias.

Just mention it and you get a response. Nodding in agreement. People start talking about their experiences with training. A senior man will raise his hand and say it changed his thinking.

Sounds wonderful, right? Well, no.

“We should be concerned that most studies are inconclusive on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training.”

Unconscious bias training by itself is a waste of time.

I don’t say that lightly, it has taken me months to come to that conclusion. So when I hear leaders say that we must take action on unconscious bias, or people attribute anything substantive toward workplace equality to unconscious bias, I roll my eyes.

To be frank with you, unconscious bias is just a buzzword and fad of workplace culture.

I am yet to work with an organisation which has seen a dramatic change from undertaking unconscious bias training. And if I take the time to grill an executive who thinks it has changed their team we often find there are other factors at play.

And when we dig deeper we find evidence that unconscious bias training may be “superficial” and “underestimates the scale of deliberate sexism”. Evidence such as that presented in The Australian earlier this year even concluded that men are hiding their sexist attitudes to tick the training box.

Come on, we have all suffered through a training session just to make our boss happy. And that is what is happening here.

This is not to say that unconscious bias does not have a place. The issue I see is that managers rely on unconscious bias training as a panacea of gender equality.

It’s a bit like baking a cake. The first thing we need is a recipe, something to open your eyes and guide you to the eventual baked deliciousness.

Unconscious bias is like the recipe for baking the diversity cake. For you to have the open mind for issues and insight into challenges we need to know where we are starting. It’s a foundation to build off.

To finish baking a cake after reading the recipe will leave many disappointed.

With the amount of effort going into unconscious bias training we should be concerned that most studies are inconclusive on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training. And one study from Michelle Duguid at the Washington University in St Louis even saw a negative effect.

Meanwhile, another study provides evidence that for people like me, white men, these policies lure us into a false sense of equality.

Workplace opportunity needs more than smoke and mirrors, and the assumption of equality.

Relying on one program or policy is the lazy way out. To accept this situation is to limit ourselves and our own opportunities, and our cake.

Workplace equality does not happen overnight. It takes sustained effort and consideration. Unconscious bias has its place, but it won’t change the world. Training won’t get us there alone.

And we shouldn’t be foolish enough to think it can.

Conrad Liveris is a workforce diversity specialist.

This article was first published by our friends at Women’s Agenda.

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5 years ago

I see you did not make any suggestions as to what will, in your opinion, move the needle as far as making the workplace more equitable. That would have been helpful. “Training won’t get us there alone.” OK, agreed. Though I do think that awareness and skill building associated with unconscious bias training is better than nothing. That said, what do you propose? Your piece as is comes across as a rant with no helpful ideas or insights.

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