On April 12, a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia’s upmarket Rittenhouse Square area called the police to report two black men who were sitting without ordering anything. The men were arrested on suspicion of trespassing, and were handcuffed and taken away. They were later released without charge.
Starbucks has since apologised, and said that in response it will close more than 8,000 US stores to give 175,000 employees unconscious bias training (UBT).
Unconscious biases are opinions and stereotypes — about black people, women, or any other group — that we hold without realising. These underlying biases inform our everyday behaviour and decisions.
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Most UBT programs involve a test to reveal one’s biases, education about the impact of them and suggested techniques for mitigating these prejudices.
Starbucks’ use of UBT as a quick diversity remedy is just a small part in a wider story of the training’s recent rapid penetration around the world. UBT has become a cornerstone of diversity and gender equality strategies across public and private sector organisations in the US, UK and Australia.
In the UK, more than a quarter of civil service staff, around 110,000 people, have gone through UBT. And the government-commissioned McGregor-Smith Review on race in the workplace explicitly recommends rolling it out for all managers in the country. In 2016, the US government said it would put all public sector employees — some 2.8 million — through UBT.
But many worry that these trainings don’t work. So, how much should we trust UBT, and why is it so pervasive?
Easy or effective?
Wide usage is not an indication that UBT actually works.
The UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently commissioned an evidence review. It found that UBT is effective for awareness raising and can be effective for reducing bias. Critically, it did not find that UBT changes actual behaviour.
“It’s hard to retrain the brain to not fall prey to the prejudices you have reinforced for your entire life”
A 2017 meta-analysis that synthesised evidence from 494 studies found the same thing: even if UBT reduces bias, attitude changes don’t translate to behaviour. People can be easily taught to correctly answer a questionnaire about bias — whether it’s about race or gender — but quickly forget the right answers.
“Diversity training could be useful as an awareness-raising exercise, we just shouldn’t assume that it’s going to result in the changes of behaviour that we seek,” said Kate Glazebrook, former member of the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team and CEO of Applied, a platform that uses behavioural science to remove bias from hiring systems.
She said the reason is neurological: “it’s hard to retrain the brain to not fall prey to the prejudices you have reinforced and trained for your entire life.”
Professor Mike Noon from Queen Mary University of London, author of Pointless Diversity Training: Unconscious Bias, New Racism and Agency, agreed: “It makes people talk about issues, it makes them realise some biases they have, but the evidence doesn’t suggest any changes in behaviour in anything other than the short term.”
If bias training is presented as a negative remedial requirement and participants feel accused or threatened, it can trigger defensiveness and a desire to rebel against the instructions. Some people have been shown to respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance and can even report more animosity to other groups after.
“In order to change your motivation you’ve got to want to change; some people are quite comfortable with their attitudes and values,” said Noon.
And some people may become complacent and feel “morally licensed” to then behave however they want. “Some of the research shows that once people have done the training, that they can become complacent and think ‘OK, I’ve addressed my biases, I don’t need to do anything else’,” said Sue Williamson, a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra.
Designing better systems
So why are millions around the world going through this training, taking time and money?
Glazebrook and Noon both said organisations choose UBT because it’s relatively easy to implement and is seen as a “quick fix”.
Another benefit is that UBT is easy to measure. Organisations can say all their managers have been trained, which adds to the appeal, Williamson said.
And, in the US, UBT is actually a common legal remedy suggested by the equal opportunities office to companies found guilty of discriminatory behaviour.
Getting rid of our biases is incredibly hard. So, behavioural scientists argue that we should instead try to limit their role in decision making. With better design, we can nudge people to make decisions in a thoughtful and deliberative way, rather than based on automatic reflexes.
“If you don’t change the systems people use when they make those decisions, you won’t change the behaviour”
In, What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Harvard behavioural scientist Iris Bohnet gives many examples of ways to achieve this.
One part of the picture she paints is about removing bias from the recruitment process. Online hiring tools — like Applied — get rid of names, postcodes and demographic information from job applications to stop recruiters falling prey to racial or gender biases. Structured interviews and scoring applicants on a question-by-question basis has been shown to nudge interviewers away from decisions based on stereotypes.
The UK Home Office also uses gender-decoding software to ensure that the language it uses in its job ads is neutral, its head of diversity told Apolitical.
“If you don’t change the systems people use when they make those decisions, you won’t change the behaviour associated with those,” Glazebrook said.
Another route for reducing bias — whether towards new job applicants or store customers — involves increasing an individual’s interactions with groups they may be biased against.
More social contact with people who are different from us can reduce prejudice. Mentoring schemes, for example, can increase managers’ on-the-job contact with female and minority workers lower down the organisation.
And, on one diversity metric UBT is often trying to solve — gender equality and promotion of more women — civil services in Australia and the UK are getting results. For one, they’re making workplaces more flexible and family-friendly. Some agencies are even setting diversity targets for leadership roles.
None of these changes will eliminate bias from behaviour in a day — whether in Starbucks or Canberra. But neither will UBT. It may be spreading today, but as organisations are required to be ever-more transparent about gender and racial inequality, the evidence may soon catch up.
“My hunch is down the line in five or 10 years time, we’ll look back on this and say ‘Oh yeah, do you remember the fad of unconscious bias training’,” Noon concluded.
(Picture credit: Rawpixel)