Unconscious Bias Training: More than Bias

Unconscious bias training is one of the most commonly used approaches in higher education to address the barriers to opportunities for underrepresented groups. It is used to mitigate for the subjectivity of individual opinion that has not been grounded in facts or evidence as part of a review or process of evaluation that can lead to the selection of a candidate(s) based on individual or group bias rather than merit. For example, if a hiring committee is made up of members with a confirmation bias in favor of a certain lived identity as the ideal image of a leader, e.g. white man, then the final decision of the successful candidate may fit this biased image even when a woman, Black, Indigenous or person color, person with a disability, or LGBTQ2+ candidate has the best CV and proven experience in the field. Justification of an individual's subjective characteristics such as personality, likeability, and the inevitable worthiness of "fit" for a job then becomes the basis for the final decision and ignores any other evidence to the contrary.

With so many academic institutions implementing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, unconscious bias training has been adopted as a commitment of choice in EDI action plans. Many have required mandatory unconscious bias training as a standard for all members of hiring and review committees. The intent is that if committee members understand the types of biases that they may hold and how these operate in their decision-making process, then they can find strategies to ensure that they hold themselves and the committee accountable when they identify such a bias.

However, there is a gap in the content of these training sessions that do not address some of the most foundational reasons for bias: social and systemic constructs of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression.

Our society, and especially our academic institutions, were created on colonial foundations that are strongly upheld in the way in which they continue to operate today. In order for unconscious bias training to be effective in its intent, it must include content that reflects on these historical and ongoing oppressions and ideologies that framed Black and Indigenous peoples as "subhuman" and "savages," people with disabilities as having unfounded intellectual incapabilities, and other stereotypes of underrepresented groups. Many of these unconscious bias training modules do not mention explicitly the ways in which historical stereotypes and expectations of individuals contribute to bias.

Unconscious bias training modules must provide historical and social frameworks of knowledge that describe where our biases come from so that we can understand the reasons why these biases exist on the individual, institutional/organizational and societal levels, and how to specifically recognize, respond to and redress the bias in the hiring, review and evaluation processes.

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