Diversity Myth #4: “If only we could tackle unconscious bias, we wouldn't be discriminating anymore.”
After more than 20 years of working in the field of Diversity and Inclusion, I have come across a whole range of preconceived, often implicit, ideas which stand in the way of making progress towards more inclusive workplaces and societies. An important part of my role is to try to debunk them.
These “myths” may be just that - erroneous ideas and misconceptions - but their effect on individuals, communities and organisations is very real, and detrimental. The more that all of us make a concerted effort to understand our assumptions in relation to Diversity & Inclusion, the greater the likelihood that genuine inclusion for everyone will become a reality.
I have selected a few of the most frequent and harmful ‘diversity myths’ for this article. I expect that some of you might recognise a couple, or even understand some of your own preconceived ideas. If so, I hope that analysis of these commonly held but inaccurate beliefs will help to explain where your assumptions might come from, why they are not backed by evidence, and why it is important for all of us to challenge ourselves on the ideas we perpetuate.
Ultimately, I hope that by surfacing these myths you will be inspired to, with confidence and genuine commitment, promote Diversity & Inclusion.
Myth #4: “If only we could tackle unconscious bias, we wouldn't be discriminating anymore.”
There is a great deal of store placed in the idea that, if people were aware of their biases - especially their Unconscious Biases - then they would stop discriminating.
It is certainly true that unconscious biases are pervasive and often more insidious than the overt racism and sexism that we associate with the past. But this does not mean that Unconscious Bias Training (or UBT) is necessarily the solution to eradicate discriminatory behaviours and to make workplaces fair.
Let’s take a step back. What is it that really needs to change in organisations to reduce discrimination? Is it awareness of one’s own biases? Is it one’s attitudes towards colleagues from different social groups? Is it actual behaviours towards these colleagues? Is it organisational procedures that promote fairness, inclusion and equality?
Evidence shows that Unconscious Bias Training has a positive impact on knowledge and, in some cases, attitudes - although this is often short lived. But UBT does not have a significant impact on individual behaviour and organisational change. A comprehensive review undertaken for the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that there are mixed results and that, in some cases, UBT even leads some people to believe that, as biases are part of ‘human nature’, there is little point in even trying to address them. A meta-analysis of 40 years of diversity interventions also show that awareness training alone is not sufficient to create a diverse and inclusive organisation: it must be integrated with wider organisational initiatives, policies, rewards, sanctions, etc to be effective.
Clearly, this does not mean that you don’t want to try to become more self-aware! But, as Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School said:
“To move the dial on equality, we need to debias systems, not people.”
Keep an eye out for the other blogs in the ‘Diversity Myths’ series. While each piece stands alone, we believe that a powerful and coherent case emerges when all seven myths are considered as a whole.
Once we understand these myths, it becomes impossible to think of Diversity & Inclusion as being the sole responsibility of the Human Resources Department, the Corporate Social Responsibility Department, the Marketing and Communications Department or the Innovation Department. It becomes everyone’s responsibility - whether you are leaders, managers, supervisors, employees or serving customers - to play a role, every day, in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace that benefits all.
If you recognise these myths at work, please get in touch. We’ll be able to help you address them and transform your organisation.