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Unmasking unconscious bias training: why it often falls short

Kate Pljaskovova
Kate Pljaskovova, Founder & CEO of Fair HQ

We all want to ensure that our businesses offer the fairest possible environment, particularly when making new hires and promoting within. However, not all measures have been created equal and, unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – it depends not only on your organisation’s size and maturity, but also the industry-specific challenges you’re facing.

In this exclusive Member Insight article, Kate Pljaskovova – the founder and CEO of DEI SaaS platform, Fair HQ – explores why unconscious bias training doesn’t work, and how you can tackle DEI with a more targeted approach to fit your company’s needs.

When we talk about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), it’s often about introducing new measures and initiatives to help level the professional playing field. But today let's talk about something we should stop doing when it comes to making the workplace a fairer environment.

In the realm of DEI, tackling unconscious bias has been one of the most prevalent themes. Organisations across the globe have turned to unconscious bias training as a silver bullet. Often, this training happens in mandatory online sessions with limited opportunity for interaction and different learning formats. This isn’t a great set-up for learning — to internalise new information, we need to engage with the topic actively and continuously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such training schemes have been largely unsuccessful. A McKinsey and Harvard Business Review metareview of 480+ studies has shown that unconscious bias training doesn't improve DEI and can even backfire and decrease diversity at the leadership level.

So why do companies continue to spend up to $8bn a year on this training?

The big (over)promise of unconscious bias training

Unconscious bias training promises to raise awareness about unconscious biases, the subtle prejudices that affect our decisions, actions, and interactions such as whom we hire, promote or include in a company’s next big project. The idea is that by recognising these biases, individuals can mitigate their impact, fostering a fairer and more inclusive environment.

But here’s the reality check: such measures often have limited efficacy.

Biases are unconscious for a reason. They’re hidden from our consciousness, so we can’t easily remove them. A Harvard professor estimated that anywhere between 95%-99% of our decisions are made in our unconscious minds including creativity, emotions, personality, beliefs and values, and cognitive biases.

Our brains are designed this way so we can exist in a world where we’re bombarded by thousands of inputs every second. As a coping mechanism, our brains create small neuropathway shortcuts that make quick decisions without us being conscious of them. Unconscious biases are a set of these small quick decisions and they’re incredibly difficult to fight against.

So I'm sorry to break the news but there's no silver bullet to ‘fixing’ our biases in the workplace, however much we all wish there was. Despite all the time and money invested in unconscious bias training, we’re yet to see a fairer representation of minority groups in tech. Today 91% of C-suite tech leaders in the UK are men, and only 2.6% of UK tech board positions are filled by ethnic minorities. We have a long way to go to reach equal representation, especially at the leadership level.

In fact, the evidence against unconscious bias training is so strong that even the UK Government stopped using it as their go-to solution, and so have many other organisations.

So what can/should you do instead? That really depends on your company's DEI maturity, industry, and specific challenges which you can receive guidance on from Fair HQ.

If you’re a smaller start-up, you have an opportunity to build an inconclusive culture from the very beginning, and founders have a huge part to play. In close-knit companies, leaders are already role-modeling behavior whether they want to or not, so you have to take purposeful steps to role model inclusive behavior and practices.

Larger, more established companies have a different, more systemic challenge. Between managing diversity initiatives at scale, addressing deep-rooted legacy issues and resistance to change, and ensuring clear and effective communication throughout, there’s a lot to tackle.

Whatever your company size or make up, we can help you set targets, decide on and structure your DEI budget for 2024, use data-driven tools to improve inclusivity, and figure out the best way forward for your business. Just don’t expect any unconscious bias training from us...

What does your DEI strategy look like, and how are you working to ensure equal opportunities for all? You can seek out guidance and advice from your peers in the European software industry via Boardwave Mentoring.

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