The three-minute read on… the problem with unconscious bias training

Guest Author
Published on 13th November 2019
3 min read

In the latest guest blog for our ‘short read’ series, we asked Hanna Naima McCloskey to share why her organization, Fearless Futures, is challenging the use of ‘unconscious bias’ in diversity and inclusion.

Unconscious bias training is a popular approach to enabling diversity and inclusion. Its allure, I believe, is in its promise that with a quick workshop or short webinar it will succeed in undoing centuries of inequities – across race, gender, faith, sexuality, class and disability.

Its efficacy remains to be seen.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias describes the deeply-ingrained ideas individuals can have about groups of people that are informed by societally-dominant norms relating to race, gender and sexuality.

It’s also the term used for a type of diversity and inclusion training many organizations provide for their people.

Why is ‘unconscious bias’ a problem?

While some biases may be unconscious, this concept is unhelpful because it fundamentally misdiagnoses the nature of the problem we should be trying to solve. When we are doing diversity and inclusion work, we are (or should be) engaged in challenging systemic inequities.

As such, ‘unconscious bias’ can operate as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, allowing people to excuse behavior as something they can’t control: “Whoopsy daisy, there is my unconscious bias again!” It’s often used as a way of avoiding responsibility and excusing exclusionary and unfair behavior in the workplace.

To go one step further, unconscious bias as a concept locates inequities as solely rooted in our minds, rather than being issues of policy, practice, legislation and therefore of structures. By misdiagnosing the problem, we can’t robustly challenge it.

Instead, organizations need to focus on the ways in which power and privilege play out in our workplaces, as informed by society more broadly.

Time for a new approach

If you’re an HR and People leader at a progressive organization, it’s likely you’ve been running unconscious bias training sessions or webinars for several years. Have you seen any tangible results from your efforts?

By looking at the root causes of inequities, rather than the symptoms, we can better understand how inequalities manifest and how they overlap. Such a framework affords people greater agency and power to see where they might take action for change within their relationships, and indeed within their organizational ecosystem.

We can then design or redesign more effective solutions within workplaces as a result.

Don’t baulk from discomfort

HR and People leaders need to be explicit about power and privilege. Why? Because effective social change requires honesty and clarity.

This challenge, and overt focus on power, is often uncomfortable for some. Many organizations prefer to avoid it, which is why so many D&I initiatives fail. To avoid confronting discomfort head on, ultimately means avoiding real change.

Recognize that inequities are inherently connected

Most diversity and inclusion work separates and prioritizes issues into silos. This is flawed, and why so many initiatives for inclusion don’t hit the mark.

People of color can’t wait for their organization to ‘finish’ dealing with sexism before they tackle racism. And, a black woman, for example, experiences racist sexism and sexist racism. ‘Choosing’ to tackle one over the other isn’t a possibility. This is what using ‘intersectionality’ (coined by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw) as an analytical framework in our inclusion work enables us to surface.

As an example: most organizations have embarked on a gender diversity program aimed at increasing the number of women in leadership roles. But the outcome of such initiatives is often only positive for a narrow group of women: ‘white, middle class, cis gender, heterosexual, non-disabled’ women.

Without actively attending to the interconnected nature of inequity – those overlapping relationships between racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism – our policies will exclude and tell some people they need to wait their turn.

Exploring these connections is fundamental to creating policies, practices and cultures where people can show up as their whole selves every day.

Use experience to highlight change

All learning should begin with participants experiencing, through a carefully-designed activity, a crucial dimension of an issue the workshop is seeking to explore.

For example, when exploring privilege, engage in an activity that brings to the fore our own sense of privilege, the relationship we have with others within our teams, as well as the emotions and assumptions connected to this differential privilege.

The role of tech in creating more inclusive workplaces

Technology has a part to play in creating more inclusive workplaces. Thoughtful use of data, for example, can help show where inequalities overlap so issues are not dealt with in isolation or in a sequential fashion.

One way to do this is to collect and examine our data through an intersectional lens – so not collecting separate data on women and ethnicity, for example.

How to influence change

HR and People leaders are in a powerful position to be able to create change in the workplace.

A one-day training course isn’t enough. In order to really change how employees think about inclusion, and indeed the action they can take, capacity building needs to be extensive and deep.

Ultimately, enabling diversity and inclusion does not mean ticking a box. Instead, we need to revolutionize the ways our organizations are designed so that we can prioritize inclusion. HR and People leaders must be courageous and absolutely invested in making a change.

Ready to know your people as well as you know your customers? Discover the vital steps to greater workforce visibility. Get the eBook now.

About Hanna Naima McCloskey

Hanna is of Algerian-British heritage and has worked for the UN, NGOs and the Royal Bank of Scotland, across communications, research and finance. Hanna is a passionate and skilled facilitator and educator, with a flair for strategic thought leadership organizational change.

Connect with Founder & CEO Hanna Naima McCloskey on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.


Get the research

Browse more topics from this article

Diversity The short read Workforce Visibility
Exit popup

Take an Interactive tour of Sage People

Discover how Sage People can transform the way you hire, manage, engage and retain your workforce, in this interactive product tour.