Our obsession with unconscious bias created a diversity disaster

Getty Images / WIRED

Bianca Riemer remembers sitting through her first unconscious bias training course in 2011, as a stock market analyst at Morgan Stanley. After four years at the company, this was the first time she’d been asked to participate – it had previously been offered only to senior executives, like her boss, but had since become mandatory.
Over the course of an afternoon, she remembers watching actors block out scenes she’d become familiar with – a woman being interrupted and spoken over by male colleagues, a junior being praised as “good girl” after being tasked with making coffee for a meeting, an Asian colleague having their skills attributed to their ethnic background. “It brought me to tears,” she recalls, three years after leaving the bank. “I remember saying to my colleague, ‘This is just my everyday life’ during the training, and an HR lady sitting in front of us turning her head and looking at me in shock.”

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But for all of the enthusiasm that she and peers exhibited (including the loud group of men from various departments who eagerly threw in their comments from the back of the room), Riemer says she saw little change in the office dynamic after the training was completed. “Nothing ever came out of it, and my work life didn’t change in the slightest. It seemed like a huge waste of my time.”
That this training didn’t have a marked effect isn’t surprising. A 2018 Equality and Human Rights Commission study found that unconscious bias training (also known as implicit bias training) does virtually nothing to change people’s behaviour.
Yet, somehow, the training has become global shorthand for good intentions in the age of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, brandished by everyone from Starbucks to Labour leader Keir Starmer as their silver bullet against prejudice. And this comes at no small cost: around the world, companies spend a fortune – upwards of $8 billion in the US alone, according to a 2017 McKinsey report – on such training, leaving researchers and practitioners exasperated.
“I’ll be honest: It baffles me,” says Grace Lordan, an associate professor of behavioural science and the founding director of the London School of Economics Inclusion Initiative, which explores ways to improve inclusion in financial and professional services. “In most organisations, when we choose any project, we think about what the [net present value] is — basically, whether or not the costs and benefits are worth pursuing it — and we’ll monitor that for projects, and sink the ones that are no longer profitable for the business,” she explains. And yet in her experience, this level of rigorous analysis and expectation rarely extends to the diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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Because of this apparent lack of concern for efficacy, Lordan posits that most companies who lean on unconscious bias training aren’t committed to organisational change at all: “I worry that it’s a way of signaling that you’re doing something about a problem, when in fact, the program that you roll out might do absolutely nothing [to solve it].”
Speaker and consultant Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey, whose podcast The Element of Inclusion focuses on corporate diversity and inclusion efforts, has noticed a similar pattern. “Whenever I speak to an organisation that says they’ve done unconscious bias training, they always say, ‘Oh, it was great for raising awareness,’” he explains. “I say, ‘Okay, but what did you want to happen? Has your hiring of x, y, and z [underrepresented groups] increased?’ When I ask them to quantify [their results] in some way, shape or form, they are unable to do so.”
From a corporate standpoint, it’s easy to see why unconscious bias training is so popular. The idea that we can be disabused of our biases, ingrained over the course of a lifetime, after completing a 90-minute workshop or a 30-minute online module, and then go on to make equitable decisions is seductively simple; and, when done well, the training can be enjoyable and eye-opening.
“When you deliver training to people who don’t understand diversity, equity and inclusion from an impact-centered perspective, they’re going to love the training if you can entertain them. And so all the feedback that I was getting was really positive… People were walking up to me afterwards and telling me that it really made a difference,” said Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant based in Silicon Valley, who first started providing unconscious bias training workshops in 2016. “That masks the fact that it’s not actually creating long-term change.”

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Long-term change, suggests Edward Chang, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, requires greater buy-in at an institutional level than a 90-minute workshop can provide.
“I think more generally, the companies that are really serious about diversity and inclusion efforts should figure out ways to embed diversity and inclusion throughout the organisation and at all levels,” he says. Executives and managers should be held accountable to diversity inclusion metrics, he adds. “I would see training as one part of that, but it certainly can’t be the only part.”
It’s for this reason that Zheng has largely phased out unconscious bias training as a one-off, stand-alone service, and refocused her business on providing multi-pronged diversity strategy consultations, working with tech, higher education, finance and healthcare clients over longer terms to review the different ways that bias and prejudice are baked into their framework. But Zheng has found that many companies who approach her aren’t interested in investing in projects that don’t yield immediate results.
“Why pay $50,000 for a deep-dive strategy engagement when you can pay some practitioner that no one’s heard of $2,000 for a 90-minute workshop, and then not need anything else for another two years until people get mad again?” Zheng says. “I think this gets to the heart of performative diversity, which is that most companies don’t actually care about [diversity and inclusion] and are far more willing to put in the bare minimum amount of money required to make it look like they’re they’re doing what’s asked of them, both to their employees and to their consumers.”
Ashong-Lamptey says companies serious about change should tailor their diversity and inclusion approaches. “There’s no one size fits all… You need to find out what [an effective diversity and inclusions solution] means for you in your organisation and, frankly, that is hard work. It takes time, it takes effort, and you’re going to make mistakes, and it’s an iterative process,” he says. He advises clients to reconsider all parts of their businesses, from developmental networks to informal systems, like trips to the pub. “Organisations don’t always want to do that. They want a quick win, and that’s where I think they’re going wrong.”
But this isn’t the case for all companies. Recently, video game developer King (the creators of Candy Crush) has adopted a more concerted approach to diversity strategy. To meet its 2018 goal of gender parity among new hires across all departments by the end of 2020, chief business officer Evelyn Rothblum says leadership across the company has been tasked with finding new and better ways to improve its current operations.
While unconscious bias training is mandatory for all employees, and all managers must take inclusive leadership training that sees actors performing scenarios they might encounter on the job, Rothblum says such training forms only a small part of its efforts. The bulk of its investment has gone into initiatives such as Kicking Glass, a program to support female and non-binary employees with mentoring and career progression; scholarships and internships for women and non-binary people in gaming; and new measures to make King’s recruitment and hiring processes more inclusive. These efforts helped King reach its interim goal of 40 per cent female and non-binary hires by the end of 2019 (up from 34 per cent in 2018) and Rothblum says the teams are on track to meet parity by the end of the year.
As a woman in gaming, where 70 per cent of the UK workforce is male, Rothblum says she had a personal stake in improving diversity in King’s ranks. But for the company, whose average player is a woman aged 35 and over, prioritising diversity was also the pragmatic choice. “We really thought about it from a business angle,” she explains. “We have millions of players across our games… and to be able to create content that engages those players, it’s important that we have diverse people coming up with new ideas.”
This reframing of diversity and inclusion as necessary tools or success, rather than PR gestures and HR issues, can benefit businesses across sectors. A 2018 McKinsey report found that companies with low gender and ethnic diversity were 29 per cent less profitable than their peers.
“[Diversity and inclusion] shouldn’t be diversity by numbers, and it shouldn’t just be pursued as a goal because this is a socially responsible thing to do. The theories and correlations tell us that if we get diverse teams together, we’re much more likely to have innovative outcomes” Lorden says.
To move forward, she says, will require greater buy into this way of thinking from leadership – particularly middle management, who shape company culture – and a commitment to developing and testing solutions that deliver tangible results, rather than relying on easy, feel-good solutions like unconscious bias training.
“We spend millions of pounds on interventions, but we rarely check if anything works… I’m willing to bet that we could go into any company today and look at what they’re doing for diversity and inclusion and how they’re spending their money, probably 80 per cent of it is not effective,” she says.
“Tracing the outcomes [of diversity programs], particularly for quite large programs, can be hard from a statistical point of view, but it’s not impossible. As human beings, we like to take action and get feedback as to whether what we’re doing is beneficial, and this approach allows for that.”
Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey was one of the speakers at WIRED Smarter 2020. The virtual event, which ran from October 13 to 15, explored the ways senior business leaders can turn disruption into a strategy.
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