Scrap all Unconscious Bias Training! (but read this first)

17 December 2020

It’s more than unfortunate, isn’t it, the way the news landed that Unconscious Bias training is to be scrapped for civil servants on account of its ineffectiveness. You could be forgiven for thinking that the message is: “Stop aiming to improve inclusion” or “Don’t bother trying to fight prejudice, it doesn’t work.” I’m choosing to believe that is NOT the message and am waiting eagerly to hear what the brilliantly positive alternative is which the government will surely soon be announcing.

In meantime, in this blog I want to talk about a few things: what the type of UB training is that has fallen from favour, why I actually agree with the banishment of UB training, and what should replace it (still waiting for those government recommendations too though…)

Which UB training are they actually talking about?

I’ll come clean straight away and say that I have no insider information on the specific intervention that civil servants have had (if you know, we’d love to hear from you!). What I do know is which type of training the research focused on, which appears to be the main piece of evidence ministers relied on to back up ending the practice. This meta-analysis of over 494 studies which was published last year looked at whether biases themselves can be changed through UB training, as well as whether behaviour can be changed through changing people’s biases. Although approaches differ, the general gist of this type of training is to let people know that they are inherently biased, get them to reflect on their own personal biases, and hope that this increased awareness leads to altered biases and therefore, altered behaviour. The findings from this study show that there is little evidence to show this works: Biases hardly change, and behaviour doesn’t seem to at all.

Bye-bye Unconscious Bias training

If you were set the task to teach a friend a skill which you think they have absolutely no talent for, would you tell them they were predisposed to struggle? Evidence suggests you’d be better off choosing not to, as it would negatively affect their chances of success. With UB training, we often do exactly that: Tell people they are naturally bad at being fair (and have been for a couple of hundred thousand years), before telling them to make sure they are always fair.

Apart from that, the fundamental flaws of the type of UB training we’re talking about here, is that it focuses on the individual and assumes a direct link between intent and action. If I can change my mind, I can change my behaviour. If that were true, I’d be really good at meditating and eat a lot more veg. The truth is, we operate within a social reality, and it’s the processes, systems and unspoken rules of these cultures which perpetuate discrimination and serious, horrible unfairness.

So, what then?

Reviewing those processes and systems to check for ways in which they support systemic inequality is of course key. But just because one type of training doesn’t work, doesn’t mean we should give up on getting people together to learn. Because if you want to change behaviour, you need to start by looking at behaviour. Together, as carriers of an organisation’s culture.

We at Steps want to show you what unfairness looks like by holding up the mirror to the behaviours that go on in your organisation. We want to ask you whether you think it looks pretty. If the answer is no, then how do you want it to look? How important is fairness to you? What are you going to do about it, and what help do you need to make the change happen? What skills do you need to have the conversations you want to have?

Start with behaviour and stop worrying about individual bias (and sabre-tooth tigers). Don’t dismiss all classroom D&I learning as the same thing and remember that if we want to be fairer and we put in the work, we can be.

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