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Is unconscious bias training effective? . . . Part 1   Recently updated !

Addressing the ‘Written Ministerial Statement on Unconscious Bias Training’.

In December 2020 the UK Government published a ‘Written Ministerial Statement on Unconscious Bias Training‘, in which it ‘concluded that unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims,’ would ‘be phased out in the Civil Service,’ and ‘encourage[d] other public sector employers to do likewise.’

The announcement sent shock waves across the news, training providers and businesses. My own reaction on first reading, was one of disbelief and confusion. I’ve attended unconscious bias training, continued my reading on the subject and found the learning incredibly invaluable. The more I learn, the more it confirms how vital unconscious bias training is for businesses and their employees.

As HR Magazine explains: ‘The point of unconscious bias training is to make us aware of the implicit biases we all carry . . . reduce and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviours of the sort laid out in the Equality Act 2010.’

With discriminatory behaviour costing the UK economy £127 billion in lost output each year (Public Finance, 2018), unconscious bias is a term every business and staff member needs to understand. It impacts decision-making in areas such as recruitment, pay, allocation of work, staff development and promotion. It results in less diverse workforces, lower returns and affects employee wellbeing.

So why would the Cabinet Office issue such a strong, startling and stark statement against unconscious bias training? 

Well, it comes as a result of a report by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT – which interestingly is partly owned by the UK Cabinet Office), who were commissioned by the Government Equalities Office, ‘for a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias and diversity training’. The BIT report states, ‘there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour or improves workplace in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups in position of leadership or reducing pay inequalities.’

Sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it?!

Before unconscious bias training is relegated, cast aside and simply left for dead(!), let’s pause and take a moment. As with anything, we must review all of the information (the statement, report, meta-analysis etc) to try to understand why and how this conclusion could have come into being and assess the validity of it.

The Written Ministerial Statement has been the subject of much conversation amongst experts in the field and on analysis has been criticised for a number of reasons. There are many points we could discuss, however for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on just a few. On reading the BIT report we discover important information which the Written Ministerial Statement worryingly does not reference or explain:

For example the BIT report states: ‘The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behaviour is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behaviour change.’

This means that unconscious bias training has not been found to not change behaviour, but that the measures used in most of the studies were not considered scientifically rigorous enough to determine that.

The Written Ministerial Statement also makes no reference to the section in the BIT report entitled: ‘Limitations of the evidence base’, which identifies (amongst others) the following issues:

  • The ‘training programme design varies hugely’.
  • ‘There is a substantial skew in the evidence towards studies conducted upon university student populations rather than employees in a work setting.’
  • ‘There is also an overrepresentation of US-based studies.’

Why are the variations in design important? Well, as the BIT report states: ‘This makes it difficult to pool data and to identify whether a particular strategy does in fact work better than another.’ For example training variations included face-to-face, e-learning, lecture-style, interactive, mandatory, voluntary, one-off sessions and ongoing training. Different types of training yield different results. The variations speak to the quality of the training; and as with all training, quality is key.

The report also noted that that the participants were ‘disproportionately students (82%)’, as opposed to employees in work-based settings and so it is, ‘inadvisable to generalise findings to the general population’. For the government to make the conclusion it made, based on a report from a meta-analysis, where such large numbers of the participants were not of the relevant target group, in the relevant setting or country (over-representation of US-based studies) is really quite staggering. As the BIT report summarises (but again the Written Ministerial Statement makes no mention of): ‘There is a need for robust, repeated behavioural studies of UBT interventions in UK workplaces before the field can reach consensus on what definitely works and what does not.’

The thing that concerns me most though is the notion made by the Cabinet Office that if unconscious bias training does not change behaviour, then it is simply ineffective and should be abandoned. This belief is simplistic, limiting and ill-conceived, as it doesn’t take into consideration the complexities of unconscious bias, how training is one step of a much larger process and the potential benefits this process can ultimately go on to achieve. Here’s why . . .

Anyone who has any understanding of unconscious bias knows that these unintentional stereotypes and people preferences are formed as a result of a lifetime of experiences and media exposure. They therefore and understandably take time, education, practise etc to dismantle. 

Obviously the ultimate goal is for workplaces to root out bias-based behaviours, reduce and eliminate discriminatory practises, so that organisations are diverse and fairly representative of society, both within the general workforce and in leadership positions (eg representation of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, people with caring responsibilities etc).

However that’s the point: it’s the goal, the end-game. Any unconscious bias training provider worth their salt knows that unconscious bias training is a process. It is not a one workshop fix-all solution. Any company which promises behaviour change and an end to discriminatory practices, as a result of a one-off unconscious bias training session, can not deliver this and should be avoided at all costs.

So what can unconscious bias training do? Well, what the BIT report does find is that, ‘UBT is effective for awareness raising’, when using, ‘advanced training designs such as interactive workshops or longer term programmes to reflectively reduce biases,’ and ‘UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias’.

And this is where the process starts.

We start by learning what unconscious bias is, why it happens and the dangers of it. We raise our awareness. We acknowledge we all have unconscious biases. We reflect on our own and we start to recognise how they influence our and others’ behaviours. We look at our workplace practices. We examine where unconscious bias can creep in and we change our policies accordingly. We review, we evaluate, we continue to make changes. And all of this takes time, happens over time and is an ongoing process. 

It is unacceptable that the Written Ministerial Statement places no value or understanding of this. 

Experts have also criticised the Written Ministerial Statement because as HR Magazine says, ‘no ulterior plans to tackle workplace discrimination seem to have been put in place’, despite the government claiming to be, ‘determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace’. Lucille Thirlby from the FDA civil servant’s union asked what the scrapped unconscious bias training was going to be replaced with because: “How will they ensure people are not discriminated against?” – BBC News. It’s an important question, which for now, continues to go unanswered.

Amongst the online discussion, is Frank Starling’s piece for Forbes entitled: ‘Why UK Ministers Should Rethink Their Decision To End Unconscious Bias Training’. His writing beautifully and expertly details the value of unconscious bias training within a larger process. He identifies it as a tool which helps to raises awareness so that future conversations and work can be done to mitigate the negative impacts of unconscious bias.

He says: ‘Without a nuanced look at how unconscious bias training works in conjunction with other D&I tools, and without a proposed alternative, the announcement sets a bad example . . . scrapping a single tool because it is deemed ineffective on its own is shortsighted. You need a variety of tools to tackle a complex task . . . Unconscious bias training is one approach to starting conversations around the biases we all hold, that can hold us back.’

He goes on to say: ‘Unconscious bias training sparks a conversation and raises awareness, but it cannot dismantle centuries of structural racism, ableism and sexism. So what can? A multi-faceted and collaborative approach . . . The organisations that understand the complexity of dismantling structural oppression will require a complex set of tools are the ones moving in the right direction.’

So, in summary, when we try to answer the question, ‘Is unconscious bias training effective,’ when considering if it removes workplace inequality and discrimination caused by unconscious biases? The short answer, as the government found, is of course not. 

However, the longer, more pertinent answer, when we understand that unconscious bias training is an integral part of a much longer process and as evidenced by this blog is yes . . . Yes it is effective, because it’s the first step in that journey and one which needs to be taken. 

Jemma Houghton

This is the first in a two-part series of blog posts about the ‘effectiveness’ of unconscious bias training, written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. Check out her blog post, ‘Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias‘, for additional reading on this topic. 

Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has been a ‘hot topic’ in mainstream news this year, with high profile people talking about it, including Members of Parliament (MPs) and Prince Harry. 

We’re delighted unconscious bias is slowly becoming part of the vernacular, because with increased conversation, comes more awareness. It’s an important topic, which needs to be universally understood because once people start to challenge their own and other people’s unintentional biases, then we take steps towards living in a more just society.

So in what context has unconscious bias appeared in the news? Well, two months ago, a fierce debate broke out when the House of Commons offered unconscious bias training to MPs, only for a number of MPs to refuse to take part. – BBC News.

Simon Woolley, an anti-racism campaigner said he was “appalled” that some MPs had refused the unconscious bias training. He expressed that: “Particularly following the Black Lives Matter Movement, we need all our parliamentarians to make an honest appraisal about our often inbuilt prejudices. It would help them be better politicians.” – The Guardian.

Then again last month, Prince Harry spoke of his lack of awareness of unconscious bias growing up and how seeing his wife Meghan’s experience of unconscious bias had brought the subject into sharper focus for him: “I had no idea it existed. And then, sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realise it. Especially then living a day or a week in my wife’s shoes.” – YouTube interview.

Whilst unconscious bias doesn’t make the headlines as often as cases of discrimination (be it racism, sexism etc), that doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly damaging for those individuals who suffer as a result of it. Before we look at the detrimental impacts of UB, let’s first be clear about what it is and why it exists:

Unconscious biases are unintentional stereotypes or people preferences, formed through our social experiences, including family, school, friends, work culture and media exposure. It’s scientifically proven: ‘Unconscious bias has been identified, observed, and validated in brain studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology.’ – Psychology Today.

I think the brain science behind unconscious bias is fascinating! Unconscious bias happens when our brains make very quick judgements and categorises people and situations, without us even realising it. The brain does this because it is exposed to billions of pieces of information a day. It has to take cognitive shortcuts in order to process the sheer amount of data involved and to keep us safe (a super important skill in terms of human survival and evolutionarily-speaking). These shortcuts manifest in the form of assumptions, biases and preferences.

We all have unconscious biases. Yes, you, me and everyone in between! Even if you believe yourself not to be prejudiced or discriminatory, you will still act in biased ways. It’s a by-product of our cognitively limited brains. Behavioural scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal says: “Nobody wants to think that they are biased, but we all are and once we start acknowledging that we can do something about it.” – The Guardian. 

Did you know there are different types of unconscious bias? ‘Affinity Bias’ is when you like someone, because they are similar to you, for example. ‘Conformity Bias’ is falling into line with the thoughts of others, rather than exercising your own independent judgement. You can learn about other types of unconscious bias in this Enact Solutions’ blog we wrote. What I find striking is how pervasive unconscious biases are, seeping into all aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. 

In the workplace, for example, unconscious bias is often evident in people’s micro-behaviours – ‘the little things that we say and do that show how we regard those around us. Even these very small behaviours can make people feel excluded and can have long-term effects.’ – HR Magazine. For example interrupting or speaking over a colleague in a meeting or leaving someone out of a working group discussion might result from unintentional biases, but they negatively impact on staff inclusivity.

Unconscious bias can also affect decisions on recruitment, allocation of work, staff development and promotions. As ACAS explains: ‘Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.’ Not only is this not fair to individuals, but it’s not good for business.

It’s widely known and scientifically proven through multiple studies that diverse workforces perform better financially. (McKinsey & Company) By having a diverse workforce – employees of all different ages, cultural backgrounds, gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, sexual orientation etc, then your organisation will be richer in experience and produce better results.

It’s therefore important for companies to understand the benefits of a diverse workplace, train employees to be aware of unconscious bias and its detrimental impacts, reflect on their own biases, examine recruitment and working practices and take steps to minimise the impact of unconscious bias. As this BBC Worklife article explains: ‘Unconscious bias keeps people and businesses from reaching their full potential and it perpetuates cycles of inequality. The good news is, there are ways to try and correct it.’

Unconscious Bias is our most popular workshop at Enact Solutions (see our Events page for upcoming showcases) and we’re thrilled that companies are committed to learning about and challenging their unconscious biases. 

Our Artistic Director, Daniel McClelland says: “One of the main reasons companies have cited coming to us at Enact Solutions recently for our unconscious bias training is because of how much inequality and prejudice has been highlighted through George Floyd, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and Covid-19. Companies are becoming more aware that they need to do more to raise awareness and challenge damaging behaviours and stereotypes.”

He goes on to say: “Our unconscious mind is considered to be the beating heart of our people preferences and bias, so you could argue that racism, sexism, and simply put prejudice in all its forms, stems from our unconscious brain. In many cases this isn’t our fault, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to change. We teach people to become aware of their unconscious biases and therefore be able to challenge them.”

It’s a statement echoed by Prince Harry: “No-one is blaming anybody . . . You can’t really point the fingers, especially when it comes to unconscious bias. But once you realise . . . then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

Let’s keep learning.

Jemma Houghton

Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy.