topSkip to main content

Unconscious bias: The fatal flaw in diversity training

Crowd of workers

Unconscious bias is active every second of our lives and impacts thousands of daily decisions. It helps us function, but holds us back.

Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, notes that our brain is poorly equipped to address the 11 million bits of information per second that it is sent to process. We literally could not function if we had to stop and think about every decision we make. So, our brain takes shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions.

We fall back on quick thoughts to guide our actions, staying in our comfort zone and relying on prior experience, preferences and cultural influence to navigate our day. The result: We’re more comfortable with people who are like us and conform to our expectations, and we tend to dislike people those who don’t. We lose the ability to embrace different points of views, people and anything else that is outside of our norm.

This has a huge impact for women and men in the workplace.

Gender and unconscious bias

Think about “acceptable” behaviors for leaders in most companies. We see men operate on a wide continuum of acceptable leadership behavior, from being quiet introverts to fist-pounding hard-chargers. But women are expected to walk the line of not being “too soft” and not respected and not being “too hard” and called witches or worse. This Goldilocks effect of being too hard or too soft (but never just right) is a result of unconscious gender bias.

Gender norms and unconscious bias cast a negative light on women who self-promote and share their accomplishments, speak up or lead with determination and confidence. A Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey found that women who negotiated for promotions were more likely than men to be labeled “intimidating,” “bossy” or “too aggressive.” Women are often faced with the choice: Be liked, but not respected, or be respected, but not liked.

Gender bias also is on full display when it comes to “commitment” to work. When a man leaves work to see his child’s soccer game, he’s seen as a great father. When a woman leaves to take care of a sick child, she is judged to be uncommitted.

Most training is not working

You’d think we’d be have moved beyond the fallout of unconscious gender bias by now. There are literally dozens of unconscious bias training resources, including online training tools from Microsoft and Google. The problem with many of these offerings is they focus on unconscious bias without rigorously diving into gender.

Most provide an issue to solve without offering deeper context. This is true, too, for other dimensions of diversity, such as race, age or sexual orientation. Additionally, many men leave these programs with a belief that unconscious bias is a “Get out of Jail Free” card, i.e., “Well I can't do anything about this, it's just human nature.” Finally, most lack any significant actionable advice to deal with bias in a systemic manner.

Research from the Boston Consulting Group shows that companies are spreading their diversity investments evenly across five categories: recruitment, culture, leadership, retention and advancement.

This approach is yielding mixed results and wasted resources, as findings indicate that only one in four women feel they have benefited from such programs. In this study, men identified recruitment as the biggest challenge for gender diversity in the workplace. Women cited advancement and retention as the biggest challenges.

Companies need to take a deeper dive into unconscious gender bias and better examine their recruitment, advancement and retention processes and uncover individual biases that are hindering progress.

For unconscious bias training to be meaningful, leaders must understand gender differences first, then move into deeper dimensions of diversity such as age, race and sexual orientation. The training must connect to business action plans and steps to enable people to keep the conversation alive daily, weekly — continually.

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on creating integrated women’s leadership strategies through male engagement. He is the author of Why Women, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.