Why Implicit Bias Training Doesn’t Work And What To Do Instead
Updated: Sep 20
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.
Why Implicit Bias Training Doesn’t Work
I’m seeing conflicting reports about implicit bias training. Is it worth it? If so, how should I evaluate its impact (and ROI)?
The jury came back on this one: implicit bias training as a means to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace doesn’t work.
Numerous studies and meta-analyses (see here) support this verdict. Even Iris Bohnet, a public policy professor at Harvard Kennedy School, could not find “a single study that found that diversity training in fact leads to more diversity” … even after searching diligently for evidence.
Here are five ways implicit bias training falls short:
It’s difficult to change people’s attitudes and behaviors with short-term educational interventions.
Implicit bias training can actually reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Check-box diversity programs (including implicit bias training) lead to complacency by artificially inflating confidence in cultural change.
Diversity training doesn't put the responsibility for change where it belongs: on majority white male leadership. (Men lead 82% of all firms globally.)
Employees respond negatively when they feel their autonomy is being taken away by external control measures, such as upper-management trying to change employee attitudes.
A Bright Spot: Implicit Attitudes Change Over Time
It’s worth noting, however, that implicit bias can and does change over time. A study of over 4.4 million implicit attitude tests collected between 2007 and 2016 found that unconscious biases toward race, skin-tone, gender, and sexual orientation have been trending toward neutral. And neutral is good.
For instance: in 2016, people were 17% less likely to associate women with arts and men with science than they were in 2007.
Now, the jury is still out as to what mechanisms cause changes in implicit attitudes. But regardless, we have a long way to go until we neutralize them. At current rates of change, we won’t reach neutrality on skin tone bias for another 139 years.
Key Takeaways On Implicit Bias Training:
The existence of implicit bias does not reflect a moral failing. It reflects our socialization.
We develop implicit bias from years of communal, cultural, and educational experiences. Our brains rely on it as a filtering mechanism, especially in a fast-paced society.
Short-term diversity interventions will not erase our unconscious biases.
Data can help us reverse the ill effects of implicit bias by first exposing it, then prompting us to act on it.
When we make this data transparent, we hold ourselves accountable to progress.
Final Action Item To Move Toward DEI:
Whichever suite of DEI tools/tactics you choose to deploy, ask yourself this:
“What evidence do I need to be certain that [fill-in-the-blank] is bringing us closer to our DEI goals?”
Hint: asking participants in a follow-up survey if they enjoyed the training does not provide an accurate pulse on training efficacy. Try questions like these instead:
Are your internal promotion rates becoming more equitable across gender, race, ethnicity, and age?
Have you reduced employee churn among women, mothers, and people of color?
Is your pay gap shrinking?
What’s representation like in your C-Suite? Board room?
Are the number of HR complaints decreasing?
These questions will help you create a more data-driven DEI strategy.
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