Your workplace needs more than ‘unconscious bias training’ to support women

cut costs small business

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.

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.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.


Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Vaughn Dumas
5 years ago

OK, so you’ve highlighted the issues. What do you suggest? How does a company actually get people to change their attitudes, including those of top management? Assuming there is a problem with the company.

Oh, and since you refer to yourself as a “white man” (so am I if you look at my profile pic), you may still sometime in your lifetime encounter Affirmative Action, which most of the time is to get rid of white people and hire blacks. You think you have a problem now, wait until that happens!!

Businesses do indeed have a lot of problems with equality, diversity and race. We need to handle all of these as concentrating only on one will lead to the others becoming angry.

5 years ago

The benefit I found of Bias training is that something finally recognises that people do have minor biases that should be considered and neutralised. I found your reporting aggravating to the extreme. Your statement that ” …men are hiding their sexist attitudes to tick the training box.” and “…people like me, white men, these policies lure us into a false sense of equality.” are bordering on the misandristic. If bias training is to have people recognise and neutralise biases then you can not criticise those people for “hiding” their biases. They have done what you have asked of them. The challenge is that if it becomes so difficult for men to live up to the PC agenda then the response will be “take me as I am or not at all”. Personally I have lived long enough to learn that you can not make everyone happy, and therefore I focus on those people I care about rather than keyboard warriors like you.