Implicit bias training is often flawed but shouldn’t be scrapped

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities added to the scepticism but, done properly, training makes a difference, say Jules Holroyd and Jennifer Saul

April 7, 2021
Goldfish staring at black fish in bowl (racism)
Source: iStock

The UK government’s recent – and highly controversial – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is by no means the first voice to cast doubt on the efficacy of implicit bias training. But its call to move away from this sort of training, with no clear alternative, threatens to leave a gap where equity work is still much needed.

On the right, critics worry that implicit bias training involves “brainwashing” and “thought policing, while the left worries that it is insufficient to address the depth of problems and serves as a mere tick-box exercise. The latter fear is backed up by a recent report that found that implicit bias training is not correlated with reductions in implicit bias, nor with any meaningful changes in behaviour, and sometimes even seems to make things worse.

We have been providing implicit bias training, informed by our academic research and experiences, for over a decade, and we still believe strongly in what we are doing. But the critics are right: much of what is called implicit bias training is very bad.

Some courses, for instance, fail to provide any guidance at all on addressing implicit bias, to either individual participants or institutions. One that we are aware of ran for several hours without mentioning racism, sexism or, indeed, any cultural patterns and hierarchies. Other courses normalise biases in a way that fosters complacency. Many talk of implicit biases as “unconscious”, often suggesting that they are inevitable or innate, buried beyond all control and accountability. 

What is true is more complex: at some times and in some ways we are aware of these biases, and we can become more so. It is possible to do something about them. And we must. So while much implicit bias training needs to change, it must not be eliminated.

It is well established that higher educational institutions need to do more to be genuinely inclusive. The 2010s saw students asking: “Why is my curriculum white?” and urging institutions to decolonise the curriculum. Recent studies show that only 2 per cent of UK academic staff are Black; this drops to less than 1 per cent at professorial level, of whom just 25 are Black women

This under-representation reflects and results from what is described by Nicola Rollock, in her 2019 report on Black female professors, as “problematic cultural norms surrounding power and hierarchy” within higher education. And these are deeply tied to implicit biases.

Academic disciplines are built around practices in which biases flourish – in citation counts, conference invitations, teaching evaluations, and promotion and hiring processes, to name just a few. Moreover, learning and teaching can involve implicit bias in many ways, in terms of which students are called on, whose contributions are recognised, who receives informal mentoring, and how assessed work is evaluated.

When we provide training, we focus on what implicit biases are, and their relationship to cultures structured by racism, sexism and class prejudice. We show how these biases and cultures lead to poor mentoring, unrepresentative reading lists, all-male and all-white conferences and significant disadvantages for members of marginalised groups when it comes to promotion and hiring. 

We also communicate that it is a morally urgent matter to address these biases. But our focus is not on changing the implicit biases of those we are talking to; that’s unlikely to succeed – in the space of any short-term intervention, at least. Instead, we give people the tools to help them to improve the way their institutions function: to alter policies and procedures so as to both make it harder for these biases to manifest and to directly make institutions more inclusive. 

We also work with people and institutions after the initial training session. Through this, we have crafted job advertisements to attract a more diverse range of candidates. We’ve advised departments on how to reduce opportunities for implicit bias in hiring and urged them to work to redress the demographic imbalances in so many fields. We have examined the language of promotion criteria and family leave policies.  We have made suggestions on how to address structural issues that disproportionately affect women and BAME people, such as how to adequately support those returning to work after parental leave, how to support those in part-time and flexible roles, and how to more fairly assess CVs that may be affected by these disadvantages. And we have advised individuals one on one about how to navigate the power dynamics of their organisations. 

On the teaching side, we have given field-specific advice related to discussion dynamics and more inclusive reading lists. Although implicit bias training is sometimes seen as being at odds with radical curricular reform – because it is thought to prioritise individualistic rather than structural changes – we think these two should work hand in hand. 

Contrary to the recent government-commissioned report, institutional racism (and also sexism and classism) are real. Implicit bias training won’t fix societies’ deep structural problems. However, implicit biases are intricately linked to structural inequalities, and implicit bias training that takes this link seriously can equip people and institutions to understand and combat these inequalities. Now is not the time to abandon this effort.

Jules Holroyd is a lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Jennifer Saul is a professor at the University of Waterloo and an honorary professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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Reader's comments (4)

Sounds like socialism. We know it doesn't work, but apologists always say it hasn't been done properly.
Very convenient: if you cannot measure somebody's racism, call it implicit. When we develop vaccines, combat climate change, and develop the foundations for sending rockets into space, we cannot afford to hire based on factors other than excellence.
The need is to start working towards a post-racist, post-sexist society: not to keep trotting out stale anti-racist & anti-sexist propaganda. The ulimate aim is to create a society in which each individual is regarded as just that, an INDIVIDUAL of worth, valued for themselves, not categorised by some 'group' into which they are placed (or sadly, place themselves into as an easy way out to explain failure). It is easy to call out behaviour that threatens you or a group into which you are placed. It takes understanding and compassion to call out behaviour that threatens a group you don't happen to be seen to be a part of. But in calling out threatening behaviours it is all too easy to forget what the objective of so doing is... to get that behaviour to stop. You won't do it by alienating those whose behaviours you feel are wrong. You call someone a racist & their instinctive reaction is to dig their heels in & bang the shutters down! It can be counterintuitive to try instead to persuade them that there is another way... and often elicits squeals from the more vehement anti-racists that you're giving them a free ride or being nice to them, or worrying about how they feel... but we have been shouting about racism (and sexism) for years with little effect. Time to try more effective methods... and lay aside the (quite understandable) urge to abuse or punish those who've transgressed against how you think they ought to behave. Something that takes courage... but has a greater chance of actually working in the real world outside of your echo chamber. Promote the view of people as individuals, not as members of artificial groups based on skin colour or gender. Remember that we all come from the same roots and are all branches of the same tree. Stand up for a post-racist, post-sexist society. Accept nothing less.
What exactly is a post racist, post sexist society ? Is it a society where racism and sexism dosent exist or one where we dont talk about it?