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How implicit bias training breaks down barriers in the workplace  

Sue Henley

Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores across America to provide implicit bias training for employees. The move comes following criticism of staff for the way two members of the public were treated in a coffeehouse. Contributor Sue Henley, Head of Talent Development, EMEA – CA Technologies

Implicit or unconscious bias training has not been a practice most organisations talk about unless, like Starbucks, the circumstances change that. However, these sessions can bring about positive change for companies, and needn’t be something that follows negative events. For industries suffering from a chronic skills gap, particularly in STEM fields, it can be an effective way to improve diversity by involving employees from across the business to instil change.

Rather than making changes from the top of the business and hoping it trickles down into every area, unconscious bias training provides each individual employee with an understanding of the impact they can have by changing their way of thinking.

Unconscious bias is a shortcut for the brain
Our biases are learned and shaped through cultural experiences, programmes we watch, books we read and interactions with family, friends and peers. They eventually become hardwired into our brains and often, we do not even notice them.

The human brain is made up of two systems, conscious (slow and deliberate) and unconscious (fast and automatic). The average person receives 11 million pieces of information every moment. Yet, only 40 of these can be consciously processed at once. As a result, the brain is prone to systematic thinking errors, i.e. biases. Our capacity for conscious thinking can be severely impacted when we are stressed, tired, or under time pressure or emotional load.

How we express biases
Research suggests unconscious biases and gender stereotyping impact decision making, from the classroom to the boardroom. For example, researchers in America discovered a ‘double bind‘ that exists for women in leadership roles. This series of unconscious, interlocking stereotypes leaves many stuck in a paradox that they aren’t cut out for roles as leaders – if they are nice, they are seen as weak, but if they are tough and decisive, they are seen as unlikeable.

Furthermore, people tend to adopt a similarity bias, which causes them to favour people that share something in common with them – be it appearance, education or an experience. Tackling similarity biases is crucial in areas like recruitment. It can result in people hiring those that share a like mindedness with them, rather than thinking beyond the groups they usually engage with, in order to widen their search for new talent and ultimately, diversify the business.

Beyond the work environment, this training is a valuable way of reducing biases in the classroom. Research suggests that gender stereotyping around STEM subjects still takes place in schools; around 57 per cent of teachers admitted they made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM subjects. By providing unconscious bias training to teachers, we can ensure stereotypes don’t put girls off studying STEM further and considering a career related to these subjects.

At CA, unconscious bias training is geared around three things: awareness, impact and action. We can build awareness about why biases exist (and individual ones we hold), demonstrate the impact they can have on our decisions, actions and working patterns, and finally, agree how we can take action to ensure they are not expressed in a way that could negatively impact the work environment.

Helping individuals to become aware of their unconscious biases – particularly when they are vulnerable to less conscious thinking (tired, stressed, etc.) encourages them to pause and think, before they make a judgement or action based on stereotypes alone. It can also help to break down barriers or communication and collaboration between teams.

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