Unconscious bias: Bridging the gap between awareness and action

A couple weeks ago on a car trip back from New York my husband and I were listening to a Hidden Brain episode on unconscious bias. The episode was fantastic — per usual — and concluded, realistically, messily, that although training programs are being developed to teach people about unconscious bias, there’s not much evidence to support that simply knowing about your bias will change your behavior. Despite honest intentions, we’re probably closer to a placebo than a panacea.

This is not an uncommon pattern. Decades of data on diversity training and sexual harassment training show that they too miss the mark on changing behavior. And the reason for this is as old as humanity: change is hard, and it takes work. Awareness of something is only step one. Step two, is applying that awareness to real, discrete interactions you have on a daily basis. This is where a whole new host of challenges arise, because this is the step that requires you to essentially relearn things you previously took for granted.

Take, for example, giving performance reviews at work. As Paola Cecchi-Demiglio writes in the Harvard Business Review:

[Gender] biases can lead to double standards, in that­­ a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender. In one review I read, the manager noted, “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.” But a similar problem — ­­ confidence in working with clients — ­­ was given a positive spin when a man was struggling with it: “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.”

If you were the supervisor in the above example, what would you do? Being confronted with your own bias might motivate you to change, or not. Changing an individual’s subtle expressions of bias requires not only an acceptance on their part of the existence of unconscious bias, but also the unsettling reality that they themselves may have been harmful in the course of trying to be helpful. And even if this hurdle is cleared, it might not significantly change a workplace.

But it isn’t hopeless. When there’s a training focus on behavioral change beyond attitudinal change, it makes a real difference. It’s hard, inevitably full of missteps, and entirely worth it. It’s great to feel like we’re all becoming more aware of our own blindspots. But awareness is not an end. It’s just the beginning.