Last week, on 29 May, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores across America to provide implicit bias training for employees. The move is a response to backlash, after a staff member called the police because two black members of the public were sitting one of the chain’s shops without ordering anything.
Implicit or unconscious bias training has not been something most organisations talked about unless, like Starbucks, circumstances changed.
However, these sessions can bring about positive change for companies, and needn’t just be a response to negative events. For industries suffering from a chronic skills gap, particularly in STEM fields, they can be an effective way to improve diversity.
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.
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 11m 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 impacted when we are stressed, tired, or under time or emotional pressure.
How we express biases
Research suggests 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: due to a series of unconscious, interlocking stereotypes, many women are left stuck in a paradox that makes them feel 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 this bias is crucial in areas like recruitment, where it can result in people hiring those that share a like-mindedness with them, rather than widening their search for new talent, and diversifying the business.
This training is also a valuable way of reducing biases in the classroom. Research found that around 57 per cent of schoolteachers admitted they subconsciously bought into 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 these subjects, or considering a career related to them.
At CA Technologies, unconscious bias training is geared around three things: awareness, impact, and action. We build awareness about why biases exist and ones we hold, demonstrate the impact that they may have on our decisions, actions, and working patterns, and finally agree how we can take action to ensure that they are not expressed in a way that could negatively impact the work environment.
Helping individuals to become aware of their unconscious biases encourages them to pause and think before they make a decision based on stereotypes. It can break down barriers to communication and collaboration between teams. And at the very least, it will prevent an embarrassing Starbucks-like incident.