Why unconscious bias training isn’t fit for purpose

Confirming that everyone has inherent biases leads to us accepting them rather than challenging them, argues Simon Fanshawe

Unconscious bias training is supposed to be a solution to a problem. And the problem is the continuing prevalence of unequal outcomes at work despite the fact that social attitudes in Europe and the US have become significantly more liberal. 

Then in 1995, two American psychologists appeared to have the answer. They invented the Implicit Association Test (IAT), claiming it could measure biases that were unconscious and made it available for free. Every D&I strategy in the known world now had unconscious bias (UB) training as a core element. 

Yet bias persists. 

It sounds a bit simple, but if we are trying to solve a problem, we need to know what’s causing it. With bias, we need to understand whether it’s deliberate, unintentional or unconscious.

Let’s take the statistically unlikely composition of those who occupy the top 300 roles in the FTSE 100 companies. I counted them in 2016. There are more white men called John, David and Andrew who are chair, chief exec and chief finance officer in those businesses than there are women or people from Black and Asian backgrounds. 

But what is happening? Is it outright sexism and racism? There are undoubtedly people recruiting who are explicitly prejudiced. However, there is an increasing amount of research which shows that we favour members of our own social groups. So the processes, criteria and metrics for selection success on board and execs favour what those in post already bring. The outcome is discriminatory but the intention is by and large not. It’s in-group favouring, not out-group hostility.

The IAT, however, claims that intention is not the point. Biases apparently just leap out, uncontrolled. But the fundamental problem with this idea is that biases are learned. Saying they are ‘unconscious’ just becomes an excuse that relieves us of taking the responsibility for tackling them.

To give you a small example, I was once standing at a bus stop and a Black guy drove past in a flash BMW. I thought “I wonder who he is?”. He was fairly swiftly followed by a white guy in an equally flash convertible and I thought “nice car”. Years of seeing Black guys in sharp cars on TV and in the movies had made a deep – largely negative – impression. There was nothing ‘unconscious’ about it. I could recognise my own bias and do something about it. 

Once we tell each other that our biases are unconscious and, more than that, everybody has them, we relax. It’s an ‘oh, phew’ moment: ‘Oh, phew, you mean it’s not just me. You mean everybody’s biased?’ Our responsibility for challenging them starts to diminish and, worse than that, the more bias is confirmed as universal, the more UB training ends up confirming rather than challenging our views. 

At the forefront of uncovering this have been Professors Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St Louis and Melissa Thomas-Hunt, formerly of the University of Virginia, now global head of diversity and belonging at Airbnb. In 2015, they concluded depressingly that: “One approach has been to increase awareness of the prevalence of stereotyping in the hope of motivating individuals to resist natural inclinations. However, it could be that this strategy creates a norm for stereotyping, which paradoxically undermines desired effects”. Their research further demonstrated that “individuals who received a high-prevalence-of-stereotyping message expressed more stereotypes than those who received a low-prevalence-of-stereotyping message or no message”.

My husband is Nigerian and I am fairly sure that observing being Black in the UK over nearly nine years of marriage has sharpened my awareness of racial stereotypes. The challenge to my perceptions has come from constantly interacting with someone who is different.

Contact theory emerged in the 1930s. None of the early researchers suggested that you just needed to sit people down who were different from each other and magically they’d join hands and start singing ‘Kumbaya’. But over the years, the practice has been refined to suggest that bias is most likely to be reduced when contact entails: equal status between the groups in the situation; common goals; intergroup cooperation; and the support of authorities, law, or custom. 

You may remember a Heineken TV advert in 2017 called Worlds Apart that partnered a feminist with someone who described their political views as on “the new right”; a climate change denier with an environmental activist; and a transgender woman with a man who said “Transgender is very odd”.

Each pair was filmed separately. They were given a flat pack and a set of instructions. Working together they assembled what turned out to be a drinks bar and two stools, after which they were asked to watch a video of each of them talking individually about their views. They were then given a choice, they could leave or they could stay and discuss their differences together over a beer. (It was a Heineken commercial, after all). They all stayed and wanted to talk. It wasn’t just an ad man’s fantasy; the development of the campaign was based on research by Goldsmiths University on the science of common ground and a partnership with The Human Library  which “uses conversation to challenge stereotypes” and describes itself as “a safe space for dialogue”.

The evidence is increasing that if people are given the chance to form meaningful relationships across divides through joint efforts in a common cause, there is a good chance that they will open up to the differences that each can bring, start to dissolve stereotypical views and collaborate not despite their differences, but because of them. What works, rather than focusing on so-called unconscious bias, is for teams to take time to explore their differences and through that to reach agreement about the team’s goals and recognise the difference they each bring to achieving them. Overcoming bias is a conscious effort. 

Simon Fanshawe is founder of Diversity by Design and author of The Power of Difference