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Do we need to scrap equalities training?

The government has scrapped unconscious bias training for civil servants and wants it to end across the public sector. There’s just no evidence it works, they say.

At the risk of sounding defensive, using this logic we could scrap all equalities training as we have been also been delivering this for years and there is also little evidence that it ‘works’. I’ll try to explain what I mean in more detail, but the bottom line is you probably shouldn’t cancel your equalities training just yet.

Here’s how unconscious bias training works in theory: you take a test (like this one) which identifies your biases and then have follow-up coaching to interpret the results and explore responses to your biases in more detail. There’s lots to say about the test and its rigour, but that’s another blog. The bigger point is that over the years we’ve learnt:

  • you can’t expect people to be able to control what is unconscious without greater resource/effort/time

  • people who went through this process might have thought that they were ‘fixed’ and so felt let off the hook for carrying out further action

  • organisations often used this type of training to abdicate their responsibilities for addressing structural inequalities and to offer ongoing support to staff in this area

Perhaps the most important concern, however, is that not all biases are unconscious. Any training that supports this view is not helping participants recognise prejudices and discriminatory attitudes and beliefs that are often there in plain sight.

The thing that we need to think through is the expectations we have about any type of ‘training’. In the main, it is unrealistic for anyone to go through anything once – no matter how good – and be changed (even if it’s delivered by brap). Any training on discrimination – unconscious or not – will only be as good as the effort that organisations put in to supporting people to ‘do the right thing’ afterwards. This means that we have to de-bias the processes which often replicate the status quo. We have to be able to call out discriminatory behaviours and be clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable.

There are other types of learning – on understanding racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, etc – which are critically relevant to developing the understanding we need to recognise how we contribute to creating the kind of society that most of us would say we didn’t want.

Understanding how biases work can help to prise open a doorway for this type of learning. But it isn’t an instant fix. It isn’t something organisations can use to avoid taking responsibility for systemic discrimination.

Finally, there is often little interrogation of what people deliver in the name of furthering equality. Having an understanding of unconscious bias isn’t of itself unhelpful; but the fact that we still believe in one off ‘tick box’ approaches, which outsource our equality intentions, enabling us to take little organisational responsibility for furthering equity – well, that might well be the thing that we need to put in the dustbin of equalities practice.


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