Tackling Racial Discrimination: Can Unconscious Bias Training Create Real Change?
Mar 21, 2021, Forbes.com
The 21st March is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In 2020 unconscious bias training hit the mainstream. When the world reacted to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests more companies than ever woke up to the need to address racial inequality. As with any major push forward in social justice it didn’t take long for the pushback to emerge with critics widely panning the idea of diversity training saying it was at best performative and ineffective or at worst likely to cause harm. A recent review of the effectiveness of unconscious bias training has shown that it is far more nuanced than that.
How Do We Measure Success?
The research article I’m referring to was written by Chloë Fitzgerald, Angela Martin, Delphine Berner and Samia Hurst and titled “Interventions designed to reduce implicit prejudices and implicit stereotypes in real world contexts: a systematic review”. The results of the review found that “some techniques, such as engaging with others’ perspective, appear unfruitful, at least in short term implicit bias reduction, while other techniques, such as exposure to counter-stereotypical exemplars, are more promising”.
They concluded that caution should be advised when implementing programs to reduce bias, that they don’t end up weakening the case for making widespread structural and institutional changes. They observed that when people are told to avoid implicit stereotyping it can actually increase their biases. The companies then go away thinking they have done their job and no further action is needed when in fact the problem has gotten worse.
This review measured results using the IAT (Implicit Assumptions Test) published by Harvard. Other research has suggested however that a more fair and balanced score on the IAT does not predict the kind of changes that would precipitate better hiring, including, promoting and communication across gender, racial and ethnic diversities. Although, that problem aside it does seem that as a minimum implicit bias training should be able to reduce implicit bias, which some of the studies demonstrate is not always possible.
So, what do we do about this? Giving up is not an option so how do we make sure that we are using the most effective types of training and what else should we be doing to create change at a systemic level?
Scratching The Surface
I wanted to talk this all through with someone who spends their days doing this kind of work to see what insight they could share as to how to approach anti-racism so that it affects actual change rather than becoming performative and ineffective.
Bilal Harry Khan works in the UK and internationally delivering workshops and training sessions that focus on embracing discomfort in the conversation about race in order to facilitate growth. His work has been featured on the BBC and the Metro. We have worked with him at my company and I could think of no one better to help us untangle the good from the bad. I asked him to tell me the kinds of training that are available to businesses and what he thinks works best? He said:
“from what I know, there’s a lot of training out there that just scratches the surface, looking at solutions to the issues of racism without understanding the root causes and spending time in reflecting on how individuals are operating in wider systems. A lot of my work is focussed on engaging in the reality of what it is like to experience oppression and racism day to day before jumping straight to the quick fix.”
Anti-Racism Must Be Embedded In Company Culture
Next I asked about the many companies he has worked with and what separates those who are getting it right from those who are struggling?
“I think those who are doing better, are those that don’t see anti-racism as a tick-box exercise or something to do as an extra curricular activity but rather have it embedded in there organisational values, mission and culture. This is evidenced in how and when “training” sessions are scheduled. Whether they are seen as opt-out or one off or whether when you’re onboarded into an organisation through regular PD sessions there’s a continuous conversation about anti-racism. In a world of priorities, often inclusion can be tacked on at the end of the list and I’ve seen plenty of organisations struggle to have it embedded as part of a wider and ongoing internal priority.”
I was also interested in Khan’s take on whether people’s awareness has truly changed since the BLM movement made a big splash last summer. I asked if he had seen anything that he thought would stick and start to make systemic change, either in individual companies or society more broadly.
“With the growing awareness of the need to talk about racism, I’ve seen white people recognise the need to talk about whiteness as opposed to leaving conversations about race to be had by the people affected by systemic racism. This is a great step in the right direction and a great way to move to systems change. However, just talking in and of itself won’t create lasting change. Beyond that needs to come commitments to action that don’t just end at “better representation”. The end goal of anti-oppressive practice isn’t to achieve representation and it’s the companies who have recognised that who are doing much better in their journey”.
A Marathon Not A Sprint
With the effectiveness of training in this area being so varied I really wanted to know what companies should think about before commissioning training and consulting in this sector? Khan had three simple questions that he believes businesses should ask before embarking on this work.
1. Why are we doing this? Why now and what do we want to achieve from this?
2. Am I willing to recognise and therefore change myself or my organisation as a result?
3. Does the training provider recognise the root causes of the issues at hand?
He said “if the answer to any of the above is no or not sure then perhaps the organisation isn’t in the right place for the sessions in the first place! Moving forward it’s important that anti-racism isn’t seen as the fad of 2020 but there are actual commitments to action which are backed up with time, resource and behavioural change.”
It seems as though the problem with unconscious bias training comes from both directions. In some cases the training doesn’t go deep enough and often uses tactics that actually create further bias. On the other side we have some companies going into the process without the appropriate level of commitment and with no intention of also addressing the issues on a more systemic level. For real progress to be made businesses need to be prepared for a marathon not a sprint, and for unconscious bias training to play it’s part it needs to be based on proven methods and delivered by those with deep insight and professional expertise in delivering group learning.
Humans have in built cognitive mechanisms for making assumptions and forming stereotypes, but these do not need to progress to prejudice and discrimination, those require social agreements that give us cover for exclusion. By naming these “unconscious” do we really mean “unspoken?” We must consciously bring our bias into explicit conversations so that we can update and unlearn our limiting mental models individually and within our businesses. When research indicates that being exposed to counter-stereotypes reduces rigid thinking, employers can be social activists by deliberately increasing race and ethnic diversity. When representative diversity goes further and leads to promotion and success many studies now indicate this improves financial growth. Business has the opportunity to role model the benefits of anti-oppressive culture for the rest of society, let's do it.
Author: Nancy Doyle