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Bias training, the staple of diversity programs, has been under question since an influential 2006 study questioned its value. Now diversity expert Joan C. Williams is sharing a refinement that research suggests can actually work.

Initially, bias training was sensitivity training. It was usually one shot, a single training session. An analysis by Alexandra Kellev, Frank Dobbin and Erin Kelly of U.S. data found that while organizations that used such training increased representation of Black men by 4.5 per cent, Black women’s representation decreased nearly 8 per cent.

“That kind of training was fated to fail. Businesses aim to solve business problems; increasing sensitivity and emotional expressiveness just ain’t what most companies are designed to do,” Ms. Williams, professor of law at the University of California, writes in her new book, Bias Interrupted.

The next stage of bias training, dominant today, used a test to provide an objective measure of bias by studying the quick associations people were making that could indicate racial bias. But she says while the approach was an improvement, it was looking at the wrong thing. The problem is not whether stereotypes arise in someone’s mind but whether they act on it. As well, often the training was on generalized racial assumptions in society, rather than the workplace dynamic.

The new tool she is championing for the workplace seems more effective. As well as introducing people to the social science on bias, it asks participants to envision and write down how they would interrupt bias in the future.

If your company faces diversity, equity and inclusion challenges, typically it’s because biases are constantly being transmitted, day after day, through systems such as hiring, performance evaluations, and access to opportunities. Those systems must be changed through bias interrupters.

They need to be employed against the five common biases pervading our organizations:

  • Prove it again bias, in which members of some groups have to verify their abilities more than others. Notably, while white men from college-educated families tend to be judged on potential, groups less privileged by race, class and gender are judged on performance – and even when performance is strong, must prove themselves again and again.
  • Tightrope bias means some groups must be savvier than others to succeed. White men can be authoritative and ambitious but women risk being abrasive if they demonstrate those traits and have to be careful of the tightrope they walk.
  • Tug of war bias reminds us that bias against a group can fuel conflict within that group. It’s hard for a woman to speak up when a co-worker makes a chauvinist comment about a colleague.
  • Racial stereotypes further disadvantage people of colour. For instance, she notes that Asian Americans are often assumed as a great match for technical work but lacking in leadership potential.
  • Maternal wall bias she says is the strongest form of gender bias. Women who become mothers often face assumptions that they are less competent and less committed.

You need to be alert to those biases and counter them when they strike. Take the “stolen idea” problem: When a woman or person of colour raises an idea and nobody responds, but later when a man says the same thing he is congratulated for his brilliance in solving the problem. When that happens, the group needs to be alerted to what just happened, and the originator thanked. Bias interrupted.

Here’s a common, unnoticed bias in recruitment: Referral hiring or finding candidates through alumni of the organization. It helps you find people who are known to the people you know. But it also, she points out, tends to reproduce the existing racial, gender and class breakdowns of the company. To interrupt that bias, keep track of whether the referral/alumni stream disproportionately favours one group and if it does, either eliminate the approach or add additional channels to make the recruiting pool more diverse.

Prove it again bias is dangerous because it subtly runs counter to our belief that meritocracy rules our organizations. “It’s not meritocracy when some groups have to prove themselves more than others – like Black players [in the NFL] who need more experience than whites to get coaching jobs – and when mistakes are more costly for some groups than others, like Black coaches who are given fewer second chances than whites after a bad season,” she says, citing research. Nor is it meritocracy when a woman musician can’t get a job unless at tryouts she is hidden behind a curtain so then judgment is confined to her playing abilities, as research showed, changing the system at many symphonies. It’s not just NFL coaches and musicians, however, but instances of selection and judgment bias in your own organization that needs to be uncovered and eliminated.

She stresses that class bias also affects success at every job stage. Students from elite schools fare better in job searches than those from lesser institutions. A research study found people with identical resumes otherwise did better if they listed polo, sailing and classical music as hobbies than pick-up soccer and country music. She notes many of the bias interrupters that will help address structural racism and sexism will also help people with blue collar backgrounds, who face exclusion for certain jobs.

The five biases she cites are a road map. Ponder them. Act on them.


  • Ease into socialization slowly as people return to the office, rather than hosting a big celebratory gathering. Rahaf Harfoush, executive director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture, instead recommends scheduling smaller group meetups before getting the entire company together.
  • Watch out for “air pocketing,” when senior people in organizations get stuck in a rut. They’re too good to let go of, but there’s nowhere for them to go so they’re stuck in place, paid a lot of money, but frustrated. Kathleen Saxton, managing director of Medialink, calls it a ticking time bomb.
  • With employees leaving a firm often reticent to speak frankly at exit interviews, HR consultant John Sullivan recommends delaying it for top performers until they no longer need a job reference when they may be more frank and accurate.

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