Unconscious bias training leads men to mask their gender biases according to an article in The Australian last week –  ‘Men have learnt to mask their sexism in the workplace’. The proposition is that unconscious bias training is backfiring, because we under-estimate how much conscious bias is out there, and because awareness raising about beliefs that are unconsciously held doesn’t change behaviour.

Is unconscious bias training a passing fad that misses the mark? And then doesn’t work anyway? As is my usual approach, I’m going to look to the evidence – what can we really say is going on here?

Unconscious bias is a breakthrough idea.

Firstly, unconscious bias is a breakthrough idea. Our understanding of what it is is based on decades of research that applies to gender, and other people categories. It’s a breakthrough idea because it runs counter to intuitive or ‘common sense’ thinking about how we make decisions.

Understanding unconscious bias means understanding the dual nature of our thinking and belief systems, most particularly how our conscious and unconscious processes affect decisions about people. What good unconscious bias training needs to do first is create this awareness. Good unconscious bias training draws attention to the fact that women and men hold similar unconscious gender biases, that is, women are as likely to unconsciously bias their own choices and the decisions they make about other women.

Finally, good unconscious bias training doesn’t stop at awareness, it provides tactics for minimizing the degree to which our unconscious beliefs inadvertently bias our decisions, and I provided an overview of these in an earlier post. However, there is no question that shifting our unconscious beliefs is particularly difficult. That’s why many change tactics focus on how to interrupt our automatic, unconscious decision making processes. We don’t necessarily change underlying beliefs, but we do make better decisions using more conscious and deliberate methods.

Not all bias is unconscious.

The article does well to remind us that some people do openly express strong beliefs that women are not suited to senior organizational roles. Having said that, many women aspiring to or in leadership roles are only too well aware of this. The daily routine can be a delicate balancing act between the masks of warmth and competence, being damned if you, doomed if you don’t.

Thank goodness for unconscious bias training, because what it does in most instances is allow those men and women who discover their unconscious beliefs are gender-biased to shift their practices to make more congruent decisions. It unmasks our inner thinking processes which were hitherto unknown to us.

The greater power of unconscious bias training is in unmasking, rather than masking.

It’s also salutary to know that the research shows that suppressing bias can in fact increase it. And this caution ought to be included in all unconscious bias training so that people understand this as a potentially unintended consequence of their new awareness.

Does unconscious bias training mask unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias training is not a panacea for all gender ills. If a quick sheep-dip of unconscious bias training is all that organizations do, then there’s unlikely to be benefit. And if it’s part of a tick box exercise, then sure, it’s even less likely to help.

Achieving gender balance in senior roles requires a significant cultural change in organizations (and society), and raising attention to the ways that our unconscious gender beliefs influence our decision making is an important element in that overall program.

Good unconscious bias training will inspire participants to question their decision-making process. They should be more aware of the potential for their unconscious biases to impact decisions, and have tools for making better decisions.

My book Gender Balanced Leadership: An Executive Guide is a comprehensive, evidence-based guide to identifying the various tactics organizations can take to achieve gender balanced leadership.



Photo credit:  ‘Broken mask’ josef.stuefer Flickr CC

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