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


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.

Author Bios: Jules Holroyd is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and Jennifer Saul is a Professor at the University of Waterloo and an Honorary Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.