Is KPMG Chair victim of unconscious bias training?

Did Bill Michael really get it that wrong? Why unconscious bias needs a closer look ... and the paradox of Eddie!

The Australian Chair of KPMG UK, Bill Michael, has stepped down after an online meeting in which he said staff should never play the victim card when it came to turning up for work and labelled unconscious bias ‘complete and utter crap.

Known as an old-fashioned straight shooter, Bill attracted immediate criticism for his remarks. While I do not profess to know what drove the comments about turning up for work, I do have some empathy with his comments about unconscious bias.

From about 2015 unconscious bias training became the ‘next big thing’ in diversity and inclusion. Companies spent millions – possibly billions – on ensuring staff knew they were unconsciously biased. Three years ago I wrote a column looking at the work of US based research professors, Michelle Duguid and Melissa Thomas-Hunt who 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.

I also checked in with our long-time learned friends at UGM Consulting, Dr Grant Robertson and Dr Margaret Byrne, who continue to remind us to be wary of what could be labelled ‘junk science’.

First, the term ‘unconscious bias,’ is a neutral term for normal ‘attitudinal bias towards particular groups of people’. It’s not itself a value judgement. But it’s increasingly used synonymously with terms like ‘prejudice’ and even ‘acceptable standards’. Using it this way is flawed and the associations are unhelpful.

Many clients tell us, with great regret, that unconscious bias training has done little to move the gender balance agenda forward. On close inspection now, it’s even likely they’ll find it has damaged rather than promoted their gender balance efforts. “

Back to Bill, who has been so pilloried for his stance on unconscious bias that I thought I would listen to what he actually said.  Below are the offending remarks.

“I think unconscious bias has been complete crap. Complete and utter crap. There is no such thing as unconscious bias. I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing has ever improved. So, unless you care, you won’t change.”

Had he perhaps been slightly less forthright, less absolute and rather more nuanced in his remarks, it might have helped him express what has been proven in the world of psychology, data and research over and again. Unconscious bias training of its own does not improve workforce culture or drive exponential change in gender promotions, gender pay gap or people’s attitude towards gender.

So had Bill said “I think unconscious bias training has been complete crap” it might have changed the message. Because what he went on to say about ‘unless you care, you won’t change’ rings very true. You won’t change your attitude towards women or people of colour just because your company puts you through 101 unconscious bias training, but you might change if you develop your understanding about and care for people around you.

Bill and his comments are now being looked at by leading law firm Linklaters. Just to leave you with a lovely paradox,  back here in Australia, the former Collingwood Chair, Eddie McGuire will probably get a gold Rolex and a life membership of the club!

Latest newsRSS