On Friday I attended an Institute of Directors event – a Diversity and Inclusion roundtable. I went, not because I am a Director, but because I wanted to understand how this group was talking and thinking about Diversity and Inclusion. After several inspiring keynotes, there came a panel discussion on whether unconscious bias training is effective. The overall conclusions of the panels seemed to be:
- “Unconscious Bias” is an unhelpful term because it can be interpreted as excusing the existence of bias – it’s “unconscious” therefore not an individual’s responsibility to work to remove it.
- Once someone becomes aware of an unconscious bias it is no longer unconscious and it becomes a choice.
- Unconscious bias training has become a “tick-box” activity that is in itself, fairly meaningless.
It’s not only this panel that has come to similar conclusions. In fact the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report  assessing the scant evidence for whether such training is effective. I originally summarised that report last year for my previous employer (a University) in the context of the training we were doing, but I’ve adapted that summary here to make it more broadly useful. (Lots of other research is emerging on unconscious bias but here I only focus on this one report – itself a review).
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is often described as the mental processes that allow humans to make the shortcuts to decision making that are needed on a minute by minute basis. It is closely related to the use of stereotypes and assumptions. And these shortcuts can be useful. We aren’t generally aware, in the moment, that we are even making these assumptions. They have their roots in our experiences and exposure to situations from birth.
However, sometimes these shortcuts can lead to bias or prejudice that isn’t born out by wider evidence. For example, due to exposure to historical accounts where men dominated science and engineering activities, when people think of a scientist they often picture Einstein with crazy hair. As unreasonable as it may seem when written out like this, this type of assumption can lead to hiring managers in engineering firms preferentially hiring men, without really realising they were doing it. A bias has crept in. Over time, this type of bias can skew the workforce, which has implications for talent recruitment and management, creativity and productivity (all of which are known to benefit when the workforce is more diverse). Biases are known to exist around race, weight and appearance, gendered roles at home and in work.
So what is unconscious bias training (UBT)?
Unconscious Bias training is frequently cited as a solution to reducing bias with respect to protected characteristics in selection processes and other decisions as required by the Equality Act 2010. Indeed , in Higher Education, no self-respecting Athena SWAN application would be without it. In many places some form of unconscious bias training is mandatory for chairs of interview panels and some areas have trained larger teams as part of their local Athena SWAN bids. For example, when I was at my previous institution our unconscious bias training was delivered in a number of ways:
- Embedded within face-to-face recruitment and selection panel and chair training
- Specific online Unconscious bias module
- Some historic bespoke training at school or function level.
- PGR student training developed from undergraduate training work in SMPCS
Does UBT work?
The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report by Doyin Atewologun, Tinu Cornish and Fatima Tresh provides a broader evaluation, highlighting where evidence exists for the effectiveness of this type of training. Here I summarise points from that report which reviewed many published articles and grey literature annual reports of studies into the effectiveness of unconscious bias training (UBT). The studies used varied in terms of robustness.
What can UBT do?
- Effective for awareness raising.
- Can reduce implicit bias but is unlikely to eliminate it. Most UBT is not designed to reduce explicit bias.
- The evidence for UBT being effective in changing behaviour is limited – but most of these studies did not use valid measures of behaviour change.
- More successful in reducing implicit bias relating to gender, than race and ethnicity.
What does the most effective UBT look like?
- Uses an IAT (Implicit Association Test), followed by a debrief, incorporating theory about unconscious bias rather than detail about impact.
- The most successful interventions include bias reduction strategies and bias mitigation strategies so that participants feel empowered to do something.
- There appears little difference in effectiveness between on-line and face-to-face training. However, there is evidence that increasing the sophistication of the UBT (e.g. an interactive workshop) can increase awareness and concern about wider discrimination and that this awareness continues to increase over time.
- The report emphasises that UBT should be only one part of a programme designed to achieve organisational change.
Who should be trained?
- Training teams together resulted in positive group behaviour change despite the evidence for effectiveness at individual behaviour change being weak.
- There is too little UBT specific research to judge whether mandatory or voluntary training has a different effectiveness.
What can go wrong?
If UBT participants are exposed to information that suggests stereotypes and biases are unchangeable, this can back-fire and result in more entrenched bias.
Personally I would suggest that it is too early to throw Unconscious Bias Training out totally. However, it is certainly becoming clearer that the training needs to be done in the context of the organisation rather than picking something very generic off the shelf. It is also true that it needs to be part of a broader organisational priority on developing inclusive processes which is lead from and championed by the very top levels of the organisation.
Secondly any training also needs to spend a lot of time looking at the situations relevant to that organisation where biases are most likely to occur and suggest ways to mitigate against these biases. For example, decisions made in a hurry and by a restricted number of people very remote from the people affected by the decision itself can be very strongly affected by unconscious bias.
We do need to deal with what happens once people’s awareness is raised so that their biases are no longer unconscious. Having come to terms with some of my own biases, I know that continuous support and awareness is key to moving past them. There needs to be follow-up training to support and explore the impacts further.
Perhaps we need a better name for UBT – Bias Awareness and Mitigation Training anyone?
An excellent video explanation of unconscious bias has been produced by The Royal Society.
 Unconscious Bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness , Equality and Human Rights Commission, Research Report 113, by Doyin Atewologun, Tinu Cornish and Fatima Tresh
 Athena SWAN is a charter mark run by Advance-HE. Winning one is a sign that an Institution, School or Department have done a comprehensive audit of gender equality in their area and developed a meaningful action plan. Higher levels of the award demand evidence of impact of changes in culture and process.