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Simon Fanshawe

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Good interactions don’t counteract bias: why people steal petrified wood


Simon Fanshawe OBE, co-founder of Stonewall and Diversityby Design, argues that unconscious bias training is not only ineffective but could also worsen discriminatory behaviours or thinking. What’s the alternative? A revamp on how we do things.

Some years back a fad started for unconscious bias training. I went to a diversity conference in Barcelona where a French woman insisted (with an air of complete assurance and utter contempt for anything any of the rest of us had been doing) that if we did not use her (very expensive) unconscious bias training we were simply never going to get onto the first step of the ladder to deal with the lack of diversity in our organisations.

Despite her manner, she was saying something important. Understanding that our biases are unconscious is fundamental to tackling diversity. Where she was mistaken was in her insistence that training was the solution.

The diversity deficit

When we started Diversity by Design, we did so from a combination of despondency and optimism. Despondency because the return on the massive investment that has been made in diversity over the past 20 years has simply not produced sufficient returns in either pace or amount of change.

The diversity deficits abound. There are still more men in the top 300 jobs of the FTSE 100 (Chair, CEO and CFO) called John, David and Andrew than there are women and black and Asian people. (I know. I counted them). There was a law firm in the City where, up to a couple of years ago, they had more partners called David than they did women. 14% Davids and only 11% women.

And, without being cute about it, it is simply statistically unlikely that all the “best” people to run either British industry or one of the country’s top law firms come from the same group. We are not using the talent available. But why has change been so incredibly slow?

That’s where our optimism came in. If we looked at the research and at our own practice and we could answer that question, then we could design approaches that would produce a really effective dividend on the diversity investment.

Why training is not the answer

The first reason why training is not the answer is that all the research tells us that we can’t educate ourselves out of these long learned and deep-seated preferences.

Many of you will know the story of the auditioning of musicians for orchestras in the US in the 1970s. Despite their good intentions, they kept on recruiting musicians who came from the same group – white men, as it happened.

So someone put a curtain between the players and those assessing, so the assessors really could just listen to how the musicians played. And they could choose the best – which turned out to be a much more heterogeneous group than they’d chosen without the curtain.

Diversity is not an initiative. It is not a ‘thing you do’, but ‘a way you do things’.

The significant finding that emerged was that, without the curtain, those assessing were making a judgement about the musicianship of the players,which was not based on their musical skill. In fact the visual clue of the musicians being male had led to aural judgements that they played better.

Good intentions do not counteract bias. So what does?

What we have learned over the past few years from what came to be called ‘nudge’ – more properly ‘behavioural economics’ – is that changing people’s behaviour is what changes their thinking. Not the other way around.

A good example of this is Civil Partnerships. By creating a ceremony in which gay people could celebrate and legitimise their relationships with their families and friends, very quickly they became called ‘weddings’ (I know. I have one!) They were real family celebrations, like all the other weddings.

So, when my friend with the ferociously Catholic mother whose bigotry about “the gays” had crippled his early twenties, finally got married to his boyfriend, who was in the front row? The question was no longer ‘What did she think of “the gays”?’ It was – ‘Is my son happy?’ No amount of rational arguing would have got here there. What changed her was giving her a new context in which to realise that what mattered was her son and her family’s love for him.

So we have to find the change in our businesses that puts in the curtain, that gives us the organisational change that is the equivalent to a civil partnership.

Can unconscious bias training actually cause harm?

And the other reason the woman mentioned above was mistaken is that not only does UB training (don’t we hate acronyms!) not work, but its effect can actually be negative.

In several studies in 2015 Prof. Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia looked at whether making people aware of bias would lessen it.

They concluded, worryingly, that making people aware of bias can backfire and do the opposite, leading us to discriminate more rather than less.

Why would this be the case? Because the message people receive if you tell them that bias is everywhere is, ‘Phew I don’t need to worry because it’s not just me. Everybody does it’. It’s a norm and so they don’t change their behaviour.

Recognise that the dividend from diversity comes from the combination of talents and backgrounds, not through ‘heroic’ individual effort

Some years ago Prof. Robert Cialdini, from Arizona State University, studied the signs in the US National Parks. They warned people “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

But, as a result, far from stopping people, stealing jumped from 5 per cent to almost 8 per cent! The signs showed that stealing was common behaviour. And so people joined in.

We are faced with some stark choices in tackling diversity. Fundamentally organisations need to change. Diversity is not an initiative. It is not a ‘thing you do’, but ‘a way you do things’.

So, what can we do?

Don’t rely on training to deal with bias.

Our preferences in recruitment and promotion will show as soon as we see the whole person – either in a CV or actually in person. Blind CVs don’t do it. We all know how to read a CV to get out of it what our preferences tell us we are looking for. We need to develop a changed process.

Never take a JD/person spec ‘off the shelf’.

Every time, look deeply at the role and re-define exactly what qualities and experiences it really does require.

Recognise that the dividend from diversity comes from the combination of talents and backgrounds, not through ‘heroic’ individual effort (that’s as true as it is in sales as it is at Board level)

So you need to describe who you want in terms of the difference they bring to the team. It’s their ability, from their skill and personal experience, gender, culture, race, whatever, that in creating greater diversity improves the team’s ability. We have to recruit and promote for difference.

What are the results?

Through research and practice, we have developed this approach into a process called R3fD – recruiting, retaining and recognising for difference. Last month we used the process to appoint a Professor in a Faculty of Engineering at a Russell Group University – using CVs only to do due diligence on the applicants’ evidence.

The applicants were shortlisted blind using only the evidence against the criteria that the Faculty had developed for the role and the person. The applicants were 83:17% men to women (to be expected in such a male dominated sector). But the shortlist was 65:35% men to women and the person appointed was a women.

Training is not the answer. Change is. We need to design our way to greater diversity.

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