Unconscious bias is a term that’s becoming more widely known. It’s the idea that we might be obstructing the progress or happiness of some groups of people without realising it because our biases are not apparent to us. It’s a disturbing thought for people who up to now have been confident that their disapproval of racism or other prejudice was enough to ensure they weren’t part of the problem.
Training to combat unconscious bias has become common. Companies are scrambling to get on the right side of the issue as they realise they may have been complacent. The groundswell of added support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has boosted the desire to ‘do something’. So too has the growing evidence that companies which are more diverse and inclusive (specifically, those who have a diverse and inclusive leadership) perform better financially. Pressure has also come internally from employees who want to feel that they work for an organisation that takes the matter seriously.
In Britain, Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, committed to doing unconscious bias training after being criticised for these comments on Black Lives Matter and defunding the police:
Starmer later said he regretted calling Black Lives Matter protests “a moment”, adding that “I think everybody should have unconscious bias training, I think it is important.”
Unconscious bias training – helpful or not?
But controversy and disagreement have emerged about whether training is the cure for unconscious bias. You can find, if you care to search, articles that insist that UBT (Unconscious Bias Training) is a waste of time or counterproductive. Likewise, you can find websites claiming that it does work. In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published research to confirm that…. well, some of it does and a lot of it doesn’t.
One of the reasons for this unsatisfactory state of affairs is that there is often a poor understanding of the issues involved and the science that explains them. What follows is, therefore, a description of how unconscious bias arises, operates and can be fought. My focus is only on the challenges involved in training. There are all kinds of moral and political issues attached that others are better qualified to comment on. What I’m hoping is that those discussions about what should be done will be served by an understanding of what can be done.
Unconscious bias is outside your voluntary control and, to a large extent, independent of your moral convictions. In other words, if you picture a man when someone says ‘doctor’ or ‘author’ it doesn’t prove your commitment to equality is just a sham; it doesn’t mean your true belief is that those professions are the preserve of men. What it probably indicates is that a lifetime’s conditioning has left a mark on you. Every storybook, picture, advert, TV show and comment overheard in the street has had a cumulative effect. To admit that bias resides in you doesn’t mean you are to blame for it being there – any more than a virus detected on your computer. You didn’t put it there; you don’t want it there.
Our brains operate a little bit like the search bar on Google. If you start typing a phrase ‘How much do doctors…’ then the search engine autocompletes your question. Like this:The software bases its guess on its own past experience: all the searches that have ever been entered with this beginning, the most popular searches that have recently been entered, and other predictive data. In the same way, our brains come up with associations based on what we’ve seen before or been encouraged to believe. Counteracting this process is long, slow work. It’s not that such associations can never be changed or removed. It’s more that simply becoming aware – and being horrified – that you have certain beliefs buried in your brain does very little to remove them.
So while awareness of our own unconscious bias is important and removing it from our brains may be a worthwhile long term aim, the people who would benefit from these improvements (minorities or excluded groups) might not want to wait that long. And in fact the more useful changes we can make are rarely as complex or difficult as rewiring our neural pathways.
Compare it to a physical defect like short-sightedness or colour-blindness. If these can be cured, that’s fantastic. But it’s more immediately important that whoever has them is fully aware and takes the right steps to counteract their drawbacks. So they might ask someone else to read the small print or tell them whether the light is red or green. Or they might learn other ways to make the right decision or get the right information. Or they might conclude that certain tasks are best done by others.
And it’s very similar with bias. Don’t expect to remove the bias from yourself. Remove yourself from the parts of the process where your biases are a risk to good outcomes. Or collaborate with people less likely to have those biases – people of different background to you. That’s where training tips and best practice advice can make gains.
What should Keir Starmer have done? Perhaps his problem was that while he supported the general sentiment of Black Lives Matter, he would certainly have had another audience in mind: the predominantly white working-class provincial voters who abandoned Labour in the last election. To them he wanted to emphasise his law-and-order credentials and back the police as an institution.
Would it have been possible to speak on this topic in a way that appeals to both parts of the electorate – the BLM activists/sympathisers and the traditionalists? Yes. The traditionalists want to hear that Starmer is on the side of the police against criminality and anti-social behaviour; the BLM supporters want to hear Starmer condemn institutional racism in the police. There is no contradiction.
It’s a more nuanced position than ‘police good’ or ‘police bad’. And he could have learned how to articulate it by listening to people, in his own party or beyond, who have personal experience of the issues and have thought deeply about ways that we as a society can advance. Any of us can listen to people who have relevant life experience or expertise. What we then need to do – and this can be the hard part – is find a way to trust their insights over our own intuitions. Again, training can help with this.
Presumably the UBT that Starmer elected to go on helped him become more aware. All of us in dominant social groups have challenges to face, however virtuous we may feel about our progress so far. But however acutely aware he is of his own bias, that will not help much unless his inner circle contains voices from all the communities he hopes to serve. Is there anyone from (or in touch with) the provincial working class in his strategic or communications team? Or anyone Black? Or are a wider group of people only spoken to after the decisions are made?
As a leader, trainer, writer and consultant I’ve made those same mistakes – sometimes without ever realising, I would suppose. I’ll make them again, no doubt. But my best chance of avoiding them is to have people with understanding of them in the room, on the call, copied in to the email, and in my mind.
This is the kind of thinking you’d see on an Inclusive Leader course or one that looks at ways of fostering Diversity organically and sustainably. By all means, let’s analyse our individual failings. But by making room for the voices and experiences of a wider variety of people we may achieve more, sooner.