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Take care not to legitimise bias

17/02/2017
The news today that the Law Council of Australia will roll out a program of unconscious bias training for barristers and law firms, raises more questions than it answers. Universally acclaimed as the new thing in training three or four years ago, there is little evidence to show this approach has reduced the outcome of biases in the workplace - for example, closing the gender pay gap or leading to a significant improvement in the number of women in top leadership roles.
 
What there has been is evidence of, is that making people aware they carry real and unconscious biases does just that - make people aware they have real and unconscious biases. 

US based research professors, Michelle Duguid and Melissa Thomas-Hunt, ran a series of experiments exploring whether making people aware of bias would lessen it. It didn't. In fact, knowledge that stereotypes prevailed led to greater stereotyping. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/opinion/sunday/adam-grant-and-sheryl-sandberg-on-discrimination-at-work.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3As&_r=0. In other words, when we learn that everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.

“If we tell people everybody is biased, they allow themselves to stay biased. As individuals, we tend to do what other people are doing,” says Thomas-Hunt. “We’re not motivated to work against our bias. So if everyone stereotypes, I allow myself to stereotype also. At minimum, there’s no motivation to change.”

However, when the professors adjusted the message and informed the managers that a “vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions,” discrimination all but vanished in their studies.

Thomas-Hunt says people “need to be made aware that many other people are working against their biases. Then we actually reduce our stereotyping behavior.”

In Australia over the past three years corporate Australia has spent millions on unconscious bias training. Some programs are better than others - however overall the anecdoatl feedback has not been terrific. Some women have reported males walking away saying, "Great, I have found out I am deeply biased - I now know why I prefer to hire men rather than women. Terrific!"

So instead of just making people aware of the existence of bias - thereby legitimising it - the key appears to be motivating people to counter bias. This takes high levels of self awareness and hard work. It's culture change at a deep level.

Women on Boards' program partners, UGM Consulting, advises organisations not to focus on bias, but to work instead towards building inclusive cultures as this will counteract the impact of bias. "The focus shifts to what to do, rather than being on what not to do!"

In other words, if you constantly tell little Johnny that everyone throws their rubbish out of the car window but this is a very bad thing to do, you are more inclined to legitimise this behaviour and make it acceptable. Whereas if you tell little Johnny that no-one throws their rubbish out the window, he is more likely to want to be part of the larger group of non-litterers.

We trust the Law Council of Australia will take into account the complex nature of people's behaviour when they roll out their national program.
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