Unconscious bias training: ‘Not a silver bullet’

October 12, 2015, 9:59 PM UTC

Is unconscious bias training the cure-all to eliminating hidden prejudices in the workplace? Not necessarily, but it’s a good start, said the members of a diversity-focused panel at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit Monday.

More and more companies, including Google (GOOG), Pinterest, Slack, and Airbnb, are implementing these types of training programs whose aim is to make employees more aware of their inherent prejudices.

“We have found that unconscious bias training has been eye-opening to start the dialogue,” Varsha Rao, head of global operations at Airbnb said during the discussion. “I don’t think the training alone can have the impact that we want. The practices that we have in place are not a silver bullet, but they’re a step in the right direction.”

Airbnb holds unconscious bias training for its employees, and the home-sharing service is extending the program to 6,000 members of its host community as well. But Rao said Airbnb has more to do because diversity is one of its core missions. The company is hiring for a role titled “head of diversity and belonging.”

“We specifically titled the role ‘diversity and belonging’ because you need an environment of inclusion and support so that the people who join us can continue to be successful and move up in their career,” Rao said.

So what else can leaders do to minimize the negative effects of inherent biases in the workplace? It comes down to taking steps to reduce intimidation, encourage empathy, and most of all, change processes to promote inclusion.

Ever since Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd College, she has aggressively taken action to diversify its student body. At Harvey Mudd, all students—male and female—are required to take an introductory computer class. In the panel discussion, Klawe said students who monopolize the conversation in class are encouraged to be cognizant of others and give them an opportunity to contribute as well.

“We did not in any way reduce the rigor or challenge factor of the course, but we reduced the intimidation factor,” Klawe said. “The same things that were intimidating women turned out to be intimidating other minority students.”

Robbie Kaplan, the litigator who helped overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), noted during the discussion that empathy plays a big role in actively trying to eliminate unconscious bias. And often, it comes from the top down. After reviewing the constitutionality of DOMA, President Obama, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and Associate Attorney General Tony West changed their position and decided not to defend it.

“I do not think it’s a coincidence that three African-American men made that decision not to defend DOMA,” Kaplan said. “It’s important to remember that sometimes political figures actually change their position because it’s the right thing to do.”

Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill knows about empathy—or a lack thereof. In 1991, she testified to Congress and said that then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss. She recalled having to testify in front of a panel of 12 white men who couldn’t identify with what she’d been through.

“The challenge in terms of diversity is not limited to the issue of sexual harassment,” Hill said during the discussion. “It was an inability for the panel members to put themselves in my position—they were unable or unwilling to understand my experience.”

But when it comes to unconscious bias, it might be easier to change processes than to change people. And Hill had some words of caution regarding the quick adoption of unconscious bias training in the workplace.

“I think it takes away accountability,” she said. “There’s a removal of responsibility when you convince people it’s ‘unconscious’ and there’s nothing they can do about it. You need to start looking at how these biases are baked into your processes and systems as opposed to saying, ‘This exists, and let’s just leave it there.’”

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital