Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t a Magic Wand

This week saw a sober assessment of the impact – both positive but also depressingly negative – of schemes to improve gender equality. As the Athena Swan Review Group wrestles with how to improve their own awards, it is important to learn from mistakes as well as successes. In years gone by I spoke up for Athena Swan pointing out it wasn’t a ‘tickbox’ exercise, but as time has passed its bureaucracy and heavy requirements on data acquisition leave, as many equality champions have spelled out, insufficient space to provide a narrative on the application forms let alone the time to carry out the well-intentioned action plans. Hence the need for an overhaul.

One ‘easy’ step many institutions have adopted is unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) training.  The aim of this is straightforward: make people aware of their biases and then they won’t be biased any more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Pointing out biases to folk can actually make them more biased because they assume they know it all so it is no longer an issue for them. Furthermore, a brief online training programme may allow people to get the right answer in the end of session ‘test’, yet not have changed their mind-set or actions one iota. It is an easy way for organisations to demonstrate that they have taken their responsibilities seriously yet without it doing much good in actually affecting outcomes.

My own university required me to attend a session of a couple of hours’ discussion with a trainer and a bunch of other academics. This enabled some serious dialogue around examples of (in some cases frankly astonishing) bad behaviour as well as what might constitute best practice. Better than merely doing something online, but still probably insufficient.  The crucial question is how do you know if it has changed the behaviour of attendees. The best-intentioned may just end up on tenterhooks in future situations in case they get it wrong; the less self-aware may continue blindly on asking inappropriate questions at interview (at least an obvious failing others may be able to jump on) or simply harbouring the same old prejudices that mean they are liable always to vote for the person who looks most like them. I wrote previously about well-intentioned but hopelessly blind senior types in universities who can perpetuate injustices while still proclaiming themselves as champions of diversity. Nothing makes me think unconscious bias training would dent their self-belief.

I think it is time institutions started to look at the impact and consequences of training they offer, not simply offer more of the same. I am less clear how this should be done! Measuring the uptake of training offered is easy, just another metric to add to the burden of the Athena Swan lead perhaps. Quantifying any consequent changes in behaviour is much harder. I am convinced that good intentions are not enough and if senior leadership doesn’t ‘get it’ nothing will change. It simply doesn’t suffice for leaders to require unconscious bias training to be rolled out, if they also look the other way when manifest unfairnesses appear or assume that HR are on top of everything when, my experience tells me, the professionals may choose not to look very hard at alleged misbehaviour of senior members of staff (think Geoff Marcy).

Because of course, although it is easy to consider unconscious bias is most important in interviews or promotion panels, the actions that render a department or larger unit an unpleasant place to work relate to day-to-day interactions at least as much if not more than the set-piece situations. If a parent feels looked down upon because they work part-time, if comments alluding to the fact that ‘oh you missed the staff meeting on Friday; of course that’s the day you’re at home with the kids; it’s a problem when you’re not full-time’ are tolerated by a head of department, we can be sure there are problems lurking. If a head of department is so insensitive that they ask the Athena Swan lead – who they know (at least if they stopped to think for more than a second) is themselves a victim of the nasty culture so engendered, where casual bullying and denigration is rife – to arrange a session of training to improve the culture, what hope is there for the department? Yet, the PVC whose responsibility it is to ensure overall equity and that appropriate training is rolled out can look at that same department and assume the department is doing really well because, gosh, the head of department has taken the trouble to arrange such a session. What should the Athena Swan lead do in that situation? Should they stamp their feet at the head of department and refuse? Or should they assume that running a session might actually improve things so they had better swallow their own hurt and anger and do as asked?

Take this same parent who is criticised for being part-time (and I won’t assume it’s a woman, although statistically it is likely to be), they are not likely to turn up to this session – assuming it isn’t anyhow arranged for a Friday – and speak up about their experiences because that would require them to have sufficient confidence to believe that speaking up won’t subsequently lead to worse, if nevertheless hidden, consequences. Expecting victims to discuss their horrible experiences publicly, probably in front of their denigrators, in the hope that it will educate others is likely to be a forlorn hope. Safe-spaces are needed for that, and these are hard to construct.

Organisations such as universities are large and varied. It is hard to be prescriptive about what might or might not work. But what will never work is rolling out training without thought and then assuming everything has been cured. Nothing will change if the head of department is stupid, blind let alone actively making life difficult for some members because they don’t fit the norm. Senior leadership should be ever vigilant for pockets of ‘resistance’ and bad behaviour and constantly aware they themselves may be guilty of it. It is too easy to assume the problems lie elsewhere and too easy not to look for where that might be.

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2 Responses to Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t a Magic Wand

  1. Well said. I’ve received a lot of pushback when I’ve said that implicit bias training doesn’t work because it’s a popular “go-to” for many organizations here in Canada. It may help with awareness raising on an individual level and be a means to start a larger conversation for groups or organizations – but it does not change behaviour in the absence of other types of interventions. Which is why I prefer the concept of cultural competencies and the requirement that individuals, leaders, organizations, demonstrate that they have cultural competencies around equity, diversity and inclusion and that they can point to them and speak to them. Don’t hire or appoint with asking someone to describe their cultural competencies – work to create an inclusive lab, inclusive curriculum, organizational culture. Inclusive leadership should be the norm and cultural competency should be a key performance indicator. It is the actions that should be measured, assessed. This requires levels of accountability and some sort of consequences (usually access to resources) for not demonstrating core cultural competency. It’s not easy, requires a systems level approach – but cultural organizational change requires so much more than ticking the box on the implicit bias training.

  2. Athene Donald is absolutely right. I have made the same point drawing on the literature evaluating unconscious bias training in Pat O’Connor (2018) ‘Gender imbalance in senior positions: what is the problem? What can be done?’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 3 (1): 28-50. I also agree with Imogen Coe’s comments as regards cultural competency being a key performance indicator for all those in leadership positions. The HEA (2016) Expert Group on Gender Equality in The Irish Higher Educational System (of which I was a member) recommended that a key criteria for holding ALL line management positions in HEIs (including President/Rector) should be demonstrable evidence of promoting gender equality. But many people in HEIs do not WANT culture change…. Hence linking state funding to demonstrable indicators such as the gender profile of senior positions (another of HEA’s 2016 recommendations) is necessary. That with leadership competence may help to tackle the micro-political practices that perpetuate inequality at a day-to-day level. (Pat O’Connor, et al., (2017) ‘Micro-political practices in higher education: a challenge to excellence as a rationalising myth?’ Critical Studies in Education DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2017.1381629.)
    It is not easy. It does require a systemic approach. I still think it can be done. But rhetorical compliance via box-ticking will not do it….

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