• Katica Roy

Diversity Training Has Reached Its Limits (It Doesn’t Work)


Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)


If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.


The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.

  • Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.

  • Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.


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The Limits of Implicit Bias Training


Question:


My workplace advertises itself as “a great place for women to work” and points to the regular unconscious bias training it conducts as an example. How does this training make the workplace better for women, because I’m not seeing it? (For context, I identify as male.)


Answer:


Back in September I wrote about why implicit (or unconscious) bias training doesn’t work. Based on the overwhelming amount of data we have on the limited effectiveness of implicit bias training, I don’t know how the training makes your workplace better for women either.


For that matter, I don’t know how implicit bias training makes the workplace better (i.e. more diverse, equitable, and inclusive) for anyone—regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. Companies spend $8 billion on diversity training every year, so it’s important to understand why this solution falls short, on multiple levels.


Here’s what we know about the limitations of implicit bias training.


1. Implicit bias training does little to change attitudes and behaviors long-term.


The behavior part is important. Companies often conduct diversity training with the expectation that, by addressing implicit and explicit biases, they can prompt attitude changes which then prompt behavior changes. Then, through individual behavior change, the entire organization can realize greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Unfortunately, short-term, individual-based interventions don’t yield long-term, system-wide results.


2. Implicit bias training backfires because it reinforces harmful stereotypes.


The “backfire effect” of implicit bias training is the definition of iatrogenic. (Something is iatrogenic when it causes more harm than good.) What happens when I tell you not to think about warm apple pie? You think about warm apple pie. A similar cognitive process happens when we talk about implicit biases. I might tell you to eliminate or suppress your biases in good faith, but by doing so I actually activate the biases.


3. Diversity training makes people think they are post-bias.


Here too, the word iatrogenic comes to play. Employees in workplaces that conduct implicit bias training become even more blind to others’ biases as well as their own. These employees believe, by extension of the training, that their workplaces are bias-free. Worse, these employees are more likely to give themselves a carte blanche for their behavior—all under the illusion that diversity training has “fixed” inequity.


4. For some, diversity training feels like their autonomy is taken away.


The New York Times recounted an eye-popping tale of what happened at one company’s diversity training workshop. As employees were taking their seats for the session, a group of white male workers came into the room with shooting targets pinned to them. They were, as their “joke” went, preparing themselves for persecution.


And in the words of the creator of Project Implicit himself:


Psychologist Anthony Greenwald, who 23 years ago co-developed what is today the bona fide Implicit Association Test (administered over 17 million times), had this to say about implicit bias training:


“I see most implicit bias training as window dressing that looks good both internally to an organization and externally, as if you’re concerned and trying to do something. But it can be deployed without actually achieving anything, which makes it in fact counterproductive.”


If implicit bias training doesn’t work, what does?


Perhaps the biggest illusion with implicit bias training as a means to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is the mindset. When it comes to DEI, we can’t just add water and mix.


Sustainable, authentic results will not come from compliance-based interventions that fail to put the responsibility for change where it truly belongs: leadership.


Why leadership?


Because workplace inequity is a systemic issue that requires a systemic solution. Yes, microaggressions and harmful comments aggravate these inequities. But until we change the system to make it equitable from the start—and at scale, we can’t expect ephemeral changes in individual attitudes to do the trick.


This is where AI and advanced technologies can play a role in both:


a.) filtering out biases, and

b.) hardwiring gender equity into talent management systems.


Think of it as augmented leadership. Machines won’t replace human decision making. Rather, machines will make human decision making that much better.

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