Features, Privilege, Social Science

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas.

In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets to go to unconscious bias training again!” The message was clear: Hire more women and (non-Asian) minorities, or you will be sent to the detention hall after class to spend three hours in an uncomfortable chair being scolded for your biases.

Yes, at some point during every training session there is always some sort of lawyerly admonishment that we must not make decisions based on race or gender, and that ‘affirmative action’ is verboten. However, such admonishments are brief, and delivered only after we have heard that the dearth of female and minority professors in our field is due to our biased decisions. One could summarize the message as: “Nobody’s telling you to take decisions based on race or gender, we’re just telling you to take decisions that will help us achieve our goals in regards to race and gender.”

Left unmentioned are the dearth of women and (non-Asian) minorities earning PhDs in my field, or the fact that we offer low pay for high teaching loads in a place with a high cost of living.  We are expected to somehow get sufficient numbers of rare and sought-after people to apply for our jobs who will then accept our (lowball) offers. And I can assure you, women and (non-Asian) minorities are sought after. Sure, once upon a time, professors were reluctant to hire anyone other than a white male. Nowadays, we are desperate to hire anyone other than a white (or Asian) male. Deans have cancelled searches if the finalist pool is not sufficiently diverse, and even tried to fumble negotiations with a department’s top-ranked choice if a more ‘diverse’ alternative was waiting in the wings. After all, the Dean will never move up to a better job at a different school if he cannot show that he hit his diversity targets!

Some might say that the solution is simple: hire on merit! That sounds great on the surface, but real decisions always have a subjective element. The ideal candidate is a superb scholar with prolific output of creative and ground-breaking work in multiple sub-fields, a good track record of securing research grants, and prodigious experience teaching numerous courses (with excellent reviews) in exactly the areas where we most need additional expertise. Real candidates are human. There will always be debates about whether to favor the person whose research output is more abundant or the person whose work is of (apparently) higher quality. We’ll agonize over whether to hire the person with more extensive teaching experience or the one who has taught a few classes on topics where expertise is harder to find.

These are ultimately subjective decisions, where discretion has to be exercised by fallible humans doing their best with incomplete information. Unsavory biases can, of course, influence these decisions, but they can just as easily be influenced by the pressures exerted by university administrators. As Cornell University social scientists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have shown (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 28, 2015), recent hiring patterns in many science fields strongly suggest that the pressures exerted by Deans are working. Nobody wants to openly admit the existence of such pressures—some lawyer would promptly subpoena them on behalf of an unsuccessful job applicant, and they would immediately face institutional punishment. Nevertheless, they are real, as many professors will confirm behind closed doors.

So, I don’t doubt that Starbucks’s CEO will get the results he wants when he sends his employees to unconscious bias training. My boss did.


The author is a tenured professor in a STEM discipline. Sebastian Cesario is a pseudonym.