Where Does Implicit Bias Training Fit?
This first and often only training may be problematic
Something happens. Whether it may be a national event or a local event, something spurs the implementation of reactionary training workshops. Perhaps even just one workshop.
I would bet good money that it would be an implicit bias workshop. For double or nothing, I add that probably it occurs as the only training and unaccompanied by any context or actionable goals.
Implicit biases are when people can act on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes without intending to do so. Implicit biases appear in many settings, from healthcare, to hiring, evaluations, housing, and many others.
As we have witnessed recently, many appear to be leaning even further into their biases. The outright hatred. Recently, I have seen the symbols of this hate on flags flying past me on vehicles down the street and carried by crowds on streets.
While that particular audience certainly is not the focus of this post, this situation does raise an important question: where does implicit bias training fit?
Many people who have experienced an implicit bias workshop have visited or heard about Project Implicit’s online Implicit Association Test. Based at Harvard (or at least hosted on their .edu site), Project Implicit is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission “to educate the public about bias and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the internet.”
However, the current practices in implicit bias training likely may do little to correct the harms of implicit biases. Evidence of efficacy is largely absent, particularly for long-term behavior changes. Other problems include brevity and lack of follow-up, particularly when these are mostly a one-and-done session. The courses often are known to be passive and theory-based, rather than focused on actionable steps. Overall, these issues are fairly well known and discussed.
When something is done poorly, it may not work. Unsurprisingly, I did not knit a sweater in my first try. In fact, many stitches were dropped and it turned into a hole-filled blob. The sentiments seem related. Another issue with a single implict bias training is the checking the box approach. More worryingly, participants may also feel like they no longer need to care since they took the training or that these biases can never be fully addressed. I held knitting needles, so that means I am now an expert, right?
Requiring implicit bias training typically causes some sort of resentment, whether for the time demands or the potential discomfort in the content.
Particularly when the existence of diversity discussions in the hiring process can cause physical stress responses and perceptions of receiving unfair treatment in typically overrepresented groups, negative responses to diversity initiatives broadly are rampant. Conversely, there is conflicting information that ethnically minoritized groups view companies more favorably or not when they present diversity content in hiring materials.
There seems to be the need for a cautionary tale. Simply a lack of evidence of efficacy does not mean that the effort should be canceled, particularly when cancellations may be motivated by so-called anti-wokeness. The training and work really are only effective through being uncomfortable and feeling challenged. Interestingly, that is how most educational activities also work. Learners are challenged to expand, develop, and strive for more. This is not particularly unusual.
What is needed is more thoughtful planning and implementation. Integrating content, building upon and revisiting information, and having a broader plan related to diversity, equity, and inclusion learning are essential.
In addition to core content, implicit bias training should have, at minimum:
Context. Overall, context is essential. Any activity really should have context, but especially something as important as this, since discomfort has become front-and-center in these discussions. Context might include discussion of individual actions and also systemic issues. Context can be the why, the how, and integration into other discussions.
Strategies. Implicit bias training is somewhat useless on its own without actionable strategies. Much like any other lesson, workshop, or discussion, including take-home messages and actionable items for the participants are essential. Concrete strategies, preferably linked with pre-defined, targeted outcomes (for example, improved healthcare as compared to raising awareness, a common result).
Implicit bias training cannot be seen as a standalone solution to issues in an organization. Much like any other activity, the context and strategies are essential. Embedding the content into longer-term strategies, with continued building of material is not only essential in just implicit bias training, but in all other forms of training and education across areas. So, why is a brief session one time here all that is needed? Ah, the fun of the perceived quick fix.
This discussion of implicit bias training is a follow-up to a three part series on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Weeks. Check out the three DEI week posts here: