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Will Dropping "Bias" Help to Encourage Inclusion?

Is shaming and blaming people for their biases counterproductive?

Lizbeth Jacobs/Vyond, Used with permission.
Source: Lizbeth Jacobs/Vyond, Used with permission.

On a recent podcast of The Fix, I talked to host Michelle King.

"The Fix is a podcast that shares stories of women and men who are taking action and innovating to advance equality in the workplace and beyond. The show is narrated by Michelle King, a global gender equality expert, who weaves in actionable insights and tips that everyone can apply in their workplace."

Michelle and I discussed the checkered history of diversity training in the corporate and higher education arenas and the plethora of critics who have suggested that such efforts are a waste of time and money.

We discussed why so many anti-bias diversity training programs and initiatives fail, and what can be done.

On The Fix episode, I shared how companies and institutions of higher education might approach diversity in more meaningful ways to create environments that foster inclusion.

Michelle pointed out that diversity workplace training programs aimed at eliminating bias have become a fixture of the American workplace. By now, most of us are indeed familiar with such diversity programs. Initiatives like unconscious bias, racial sensitivity, and diversity awareness training are common programs.

These programs are also very expensive and as some researchers and practitioners have suggested they are also of dubious value in terms of effectiveness. In 2015 alone it is estimated that the technology giant Google spent $150 million on diversity initiatives that included anti-bias training. Companies have typically justified such expenditures citing consumer pressures, the need for compliance, and the desire to project a positive corporate image.

Like Google, Starbucks has also spent tens of millions of dollars trying to tackle racism and demonstrate its commitment to diversity. After a public backlash in 2018 stemming from the wrongful arrest of two black men who asked to use the bathroom in a Philadelphia Starbucks, the company's response was to hold company-wide anti-bias training sessions. Starbucks implemented anti-bias training sessions for roughly 175,000 employees at 8,000 locations. The training was geared to "teach" employees about their unconscious brains and the roots of their unconscious biases.

Anti-bias programs are also popular on college and university campuses. Nine hundred college campuses and universities in the U.S. have participated in something called ‘The Campus Training Program.' Across U.S. college campuses administrators, staff members, faculty, and students have been recruited to become anti-bias trainers.

The programs are specifically tailored to each campus, but all share the goal of training administrators, staff, faculty, and students to hold intensive anti-bias workshops with the aim of eliminating bias and raising awareness. For example, an anti-bias workshop exercise might include asking groups of staff, students, and faculty to consider their "privilege and power and how that affects their biased treatment of others.”

The question that many companies and universities are now asking, which Michelle King addressed with me during the podcast, is whether in fact anti-bias training programs actually work?

The short answer is No. A review of the scholarly literature on diversity training programs found that after 30 years and thousands of workplace diversity programs on average the programs are ineffective at extinguishing bias.

People attending these anti-bias training programs do not necessarily leave with positive feelings about the training. Some minority people, for example, have expressed feeling pressured to speak for their entire identity group. Other people have reported they left these training workshops thinking that their co-workers were more biased and prejudiced than they had believed prior to the training.

In addition, some people have reported feeling resentful about the diversity training they received. Because the anti-bias diversity training programs often focus mainly on treating underrepresented minorities and women fairly in white male-dominated workplaces, some white males have reported feeling resentful and excluded and felt that preferential treatment was being given to certain groups and viewpoints.

A white male employee at Google, for example, recently sued the company saying, "Google's left bias has created a politically correct mono-culture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence."

Nonetheless, companies still continue to invest in anti-bias training programs despite the poor results because they are a quick and tangible way to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and equal employment legislation. The major problem, however, is that mandatory, force-fed anti-bias training can actually activate bias rather than stamp it out.

The programs are designed to police people's behaviors and to “encourage” people to value and appreciate diversity; in other words, they have an agenda to promote.

But, current research suggests that trying to command people to adopt beliefs and behaviors can actually trigger oppositional behaviors; some people will resist being told how to think and behave and this resistance not only prevents people from engaging in new behaviors but may actually encourage people to maintain their "biased" beliefs. One cannot necessarily command people through mandatory training to shed their biases. It is akin to asking people to get rid of their very identities and thus is highly improbable.

By contrast, the science of diversity education method is an agenda-free method. On the podcast with Michelle, I shared examples of how this plays out in an actual classroom and workplace training sessions. The science of diversity method teaches the power of scientific thinking and hypothetical questioning to nudge people to be mindful of their beliefs and values. The science of diversity method makes room for differing opinions by considering each viewpoint as a hypothesis without judgment. This is the method used in science and problem-solving education.

Copyright © 2020 Mona Sue Weissmark All Rights Reserved


Weissmark, M. (2020). The Science of Diversity. Oxford University Press, USA.

Weissmark, M. (2020). Do Diversity Training Programs Work? Creating a Culture of Inclusion through Scientific Reasoning. Skeptic Magazine.

Weissmark, M. (2004). Justice Matters:Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II. Oxford University Press, USA.

Weissmark, M. & Giacomo, D. (1998). Doing Psychotherapy Effectively. University of Chicago Press, USA.

To learn more, listen to the full podcast here.

The Science of Diversity, Oxford University Press. See Amazon or from Oxford Academic.

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