Special report: Unconscious bias training – Is it time your university signed up?

Unconscious bias training is becoming an increasingly popular tool to tackle bias on all levels, with high-profile figures such as Sir Keir Starmer committing himself and his party to tackling their ‘blind spots’. Cathy Parnham investigates

The facts:

The Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2018/19 states that:
● Among academic staff there were more males than females at 116,640 and 100,365 respectively
● Of academic staff with known ethnicity, 17% were Black and minority ethnic (BME) in 2018/19, a 1% increase from 2017/18
● Of professors, 27% were female in 2018/19 – a 1% increase year-on-year since 2013/14
● Among non-academic staff with known ethnicity, 12% were Black and minority ethnic (BME), which was the same as 2017/18.
(Source: Hesa)


Meet the experts:

Lurraine Jones
Head of department, social sciences, University of East London
Lurraine co-authored, with Professor Marcia Wilson,  ‘Black Lives Matter and universities: institutional racism must be dismantled’ – which you can read on the University Business website now.

Dr Gurnam Singh (PhD, FRSA, NTF)
Associate professor of equity of attainment (PT), Coventry University, www.coventry.ac.uk
Dr Singh is associate professor of sociology (Hon), University of Warwick; visiting professor of social work, University of Chester; and visiting fellow in race and education, University of the Arts, London.

Dr Helen Turnbull PhD, CSP and Global Speaking Fellow
Keynote speaker, CEO Human Facets
Dr Helen Turnbull is a world-recognised thought leader in global inclusion and diversity. She is the author of three psychometric assessment tools on unconscious bias, inclusion and gender: Cognizant; ISM profile; and the Gender Gap. Helen is also author of The Illusion
of Inclusion.

Professor Andrew Kakabadse
Professor of governance and leadership, Henley Business School; www.henley.ac.uk
Professor Andrew Kakabadse has consulting, environmental, social work and academic experience focusing in the areas of governance, policy and leadership through his global studies of private, public and third-sector organisations. He has published 45 books and over 250 scholarly articles.

Geraldine Lupton
Managing director, Farnham Castle Intercultural Training;
Geraldine manages a portfolio of training solutions for a wide range of clients, and is committed to providing training that makes a real difference to businesses’ diverse challenges, training people and teams to communicate, influence and build more successful relationships internationally and across cultures.

Sharon Watson
Principal and CEO, Northern School of Dance
Before taking up her current role, Sharon was an internationally respected choreographer, and artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. She holds an honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett University and remains a fierce advocate for diversity in the arts.
Read our interview with Sharon on the University Business website now.


The brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter global protests forced the world’s attention on deep-rooted racism that still pervades today, either subconsciously or consciously.

It has perhaps galvanised some universities to reflect on their own equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies and there has been an increasing trend for unconscious bias training, with the aim of raising awareness of our own individual bias and challenging our behaviour.

Is such training a vital tool that every single university should commit to – or a pointless exercise that is forced on staff and will not deliver a sustainable change in behaviour?

What is unconscious bias?

The ‘Unconscious bias and higher education’* report describes unconscious bias as something “we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control” that is “triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences”.

However, as there is now increasing awareness of unconscious bias, “implicit bias… questions the level to which these biases are unconscious”, states the report. So, knowing that bias is “not always explicit”, we have a duty to be accountable and “recognise and acknowledge our biases and find ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour and decisions”.

Dr Helen Turnbull, CEO, Human Facets, recounts in her Inclusion, Exclusion, Illusion and Collusion TEDx Talk how when she boarded a plane and saw that the pilot was female, she felt unsafe, analysed why, and realised she had a ‘blind spot’: to feel safe she was expecting a “tall, white male pilot with silver-grey hair who looked ex-military”.

We all have blind spots; we all have our own unconscious bias. But is just recognising this enough – or is it what we then do about it that counts?
A common blind spot is that “people relate to other people with whom they have ‘something in common’”, says Lurraine Jones, head of department, social sciences, University of East London. This can have “huge implications on HR practices”, she adds, as universities are “dominated by hetero, able-bodied white men who have historically recruited ‘in their own image’ demonstrating affinity or attribution biases.

“While things are slowly changing (most positively for more white hetero able-bodied women in leadership roles), there are often clear commonalities between both groups in terms of their Eurocentric, socioeconomic and educational experiences”.

The impact of bias

If we are naturally drawn to people with whom we share similarities or the same world view, how can universities embrace diversity? Because, as the ‘Unconscious bias and higher education’ review points out, “making biased decisions affects the recruitment and selection of staff and students, and the ability of those staff and students to achieve their full potential”.

Jones makes the point: “The impact of unconscious bias of leaders of an HE institution where the normalcy of Whiteness prevails – indeed is expected by Black, brown and white students – particularly impact the experiences, opportunities and life chances of many of the Black students who are subject to poorer graduate and employability outcomes but who pay the same fees as their white peers.”

Statistics show:
● Black applicants had the “lowest proportion of successful offer rates” at 33 of the 51 universities who provided a breakdown of data by ethnicity.
● There are currently 165,765 white people in academia compared to just over 33K from BAME backgrounds (2018-19)
● There is a 22.6% awarding gap for a First or 2:1 degree between white and BAME students

All words, no action

At the end of November, Universities UK (UUK) called for urgent action to tackle racism within universities, noting:
● Rapid action required to eradicate racial harassment for all students and staff
● Practical recommendations for all leaders to implement as soon as possible
● Senior leaders encouraged to improve awareness of concepts including white privilege and allyship.

Professor David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the Advisory Group, said: “It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all university leaders should do so as a first step towards meaningful change.

“Too often Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and staff have been failed. While they may have heard positive words, they have seen little action.”
In his speech at the ensuing UUK conference, Dr Gurnam Singh, associate professor of equity of attainment (PT), University of Coventry, spoke of the need for a “complete overhaul of our system”, saying “it’s not enough to appoint the odd equality advisor, set up a committee and hold some events during Black History Month”.

He added: “… the key question we all need to face, especially those that occupy positions of power and privilege, is: How far does our moral universe extend? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? And how far and how deep are we prepared to go?”

“Unless the training is backed up by sanctions, it is difficult to see how unconscious bias training on its own can make any significant impact ”
– Dr Gurnam Singh

Does the training deliver?

With greater awareness now than ever before on the existence of unconscious – and explicit – bias, how does unconscious bias training work and is it effective?

“In the first instance,” says Sharon Watson, principal and CEO, Northern School of Dance, “universities need to accept that unconscious bias actually exists. It’s a real step to actually bring someone in with the knowledge and experience to demonstrate and identify where it sits. In addressing it consciously, organisations take that first step to eliminating a lot of the uncertainty and the unknowns. Many of us are operating within that sphere without really realising the impact of what it does and how it can change an organisation.”

Singh adds, “Unconscious bias models are based on the assumption that discrimination is the product of cognitive dissonance and that, if we can rebalance people’s perceptions, bias will go away. The reality is that bias is a systemic problem that results partly in the institutional mechanisms of reward and punishment.

“So, unless the training is backed up by sanctions, it is difficult to see how unconscious bias training on its own can make any significant impact.
“Indeed, it could actually make things worse by generating complacency among those members of staff who may have participated in the training. Institutional racism cannot be defeated by such token measures, but requires a whole range of measures.”

However, Jones talks about the need for staff to be empowered to ‘welcome change’ in order for them to recognise the value of a diverse workforce and student body [through] unconscious bias/diversity training, so that there is increased “awareness of inequalities, personal attitudes and behaviours that might further contribute to these inequalities”.

Geraldine Lupton, managing director, Farnham Castle Intercultural Training, says that such training is often seen as “a tickbox exercise, where very willing participants are often left with little more than a grasp of key concepts.

“The problem is that while understanding key concepts is important, in reality, to address unconscious bias requires challenging entrenched attitudes and a change of mindset. What makes this difficult is that it is often not accepted that a personal need for change exists.

“The most effective training, therefore, is interactive and discursive, and delivered in small groups. In this environment, concepts can be challenged, awareness can be raised and strategies explored to facilitate real attempts to effect behavioural and attitudinal change.”

For such training to be effective, Watson says that: “When universities are thinking about embedding equality and diversity, it’s important that it happens across all levels of management and that staff know where to find support to address their own unconscious bias.

“It’s an uncomfortable space, so you need to embrace it wholeheartedly and across an organisation, so that nobody feels victimised as a result of trying to resolve the issues it presents.”

Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance & leadership, Henley Business School, adds: “In effect, the HE sector is striving to deal with unconscious bias by identifying areas that require attention and, in turn, adopting compliance disciplines to ensure appropriate behaviours and mindsets.

“In reality, the meaning of unconscious bias varies considerably from one university to the next. Determining whether there is an overall impact from unconscious bias across the HE sector is near on impossible.

“What is clear are the particular movements and lobby influences which promote one or more perspective are visible at certain universities. These change over time and by location.”

Time for action

The ‘Unconscious bias and higher education review’ states that: “Saying an institution is committed to equality and diversity is not the same as an institution demonstrating it is committed to equality and diversity.

“If managers make it clear that they are committed to equality, for example by attending equality events, debating and discussing the issues, and holding themselves and others to account for lack of progress, then the rest of the institution is likely to follow.”
However, each university has its own set of challenges, and Kakabadse points out that: “The unique meaning of unconscious bias within each university requires tailored discussion around exactly how to remedy the situation.”

“When people are unaware of their propensity towards confirmation bias, pattern recognition bias, ego bias, affinity bias, etc, they make decisions that are limited and are contained by their blind spots ”
– Dr Helen Turnbull

Does it work?

There are many doubters that unconscious bias training is effective with objections such as: any change in behaviour may not be sustained; the training is mandatory; and the training is conceptually disconnected from day-to-day work.

Or, as Kakabadse points out, staff attend such training “as the result of peer pressure, to be seen to be doing the right thing, or due to the fear of being labelled prejudiced or biased”.

Turnbull, however, believes that unconscious bias training “is not conceptually disconnected from day-to-day work; on the contrary – the more we learn about how our unconscious biases are impacting the quality of our day-to-day decision-making, the better it is for the bottom line of the business”.

She explains: “It is not just diversity and inclusion issues that benefit from learning about unconscious bias; when people are unaware of their propensity towards confirmation bias, pattern recognition bias, ego bias, affinity bias, etc, they make decisions that are limited and are contained by their blind spots; their ability to be creative, innovative and think outside of the box are restricted as they do not realise they are locked in repetitive patterns of behaviour.”

Turnbull also believes that rather than make training mandatory, “The best way to overcome that conscious bias is to ensure the training is so compelling that people talk about it and it builds a reputation where people want to attend and are willing to put their previous biases aside.”

Embedding training within the culture

Measuring the impact of unconscious bias training is difficult to ascertain, but if embedded within the culture of a university it can “help staff and faculty to be aware of how these biases show up; give leaders permission to talk about them in meetings – for example, before making a key hiring decision, to be able to ask ‘Are our unconscious biases playing a part in our decision-making? Were we guilty of pattern recognition, confirmation bias or affinity bias in the decision we are about to make? Did we tell ourselves that someone was not a good fit and what did we mean by that? What biases were at play?’ There is no easy answer or check-list for this,” comments Turnbull.

Kakabadse suggests: “In order to improve, it is critical that investigations are conducted, institution-by-institution, in order to identify the level and extent of bias issues, whether conscious or unconscious, and from that draft appropriate training and development.”

But is training enough? Jones suggests that while “anti-racism, diversity training, unconscious bias training workshops and events are the most useful ways to raise awareness and educate in an institution… tackling the prevalence of it requires accountability which is mandated and practised by senior leaders down through the ranks”.

Watson echoes this: “Accountability is the thing that creates the change, and if we are going to make a change it needs to be a compulsory action. It’s one thing to talk about it and have courses that make us aware of it, but it’s really about the actions you then take to tackle it.”

‘No magic solution’

Some of the key take-homes are that, yes, unconscious bias training has a place within an EDI strategy but it needs to be specific to an institution, be one tool in a wider set that is needed to tackle discrimination on all levels.

Taking appropriate action – and ownership through accountability – and having continuing conversations around discrimination, with senior leaders leading by example and filtering good practice from the top down, is vital to the success of any diversity training programme.

But as Singh points out: “We should not discount the fact that there is much conscious bias. For example, if a member of staff has received unconscious bias training and they have been exposed to positive stereotypes about a certain group, there is no guarantee that they will act fairly. That is because when staff exercise power and influence, there are complex social, psychological and political factors at play.

“For instance, when we look at the issue of white middle-class supremacy, we are not simply referring to a group of people with a certain belief in their inherent superiority: we are dealing with a social group that has various privileges which they may be reluctant to give up.”

Turnbull adds that “when clients take it seriously, it can make a difference, but it is not a panacea; it is not the only answer; there is no magic solution. Working on our biases, conscious and unconscious is only part of the issue. We hire for diversity and manage for similarity and if we are serious about causing change, we have to lean in and understand the complexity of inclusion.”

And will it change behaviour? Turnbull concludes: “It is my belief that our unconscious biases do not go away; they sit there waiting to be triggered. The best we can hope to do is to know they are there and catch them before taking action.”

* Equality Challenge Unit, a review undertaken by Cornish Consultancy Services


A word from the NUS

Sara Khan, vice-president liberation and equality, National Union of Students

“We know a lot of institutions focus on unconscious bias training and the approach of doing away with our biases as a way to achieve liberation. However, we have a different analysis: everyone in the world has biases, and some do come as a result of lived experience, but, importantly, some re-enforce structures of oppression which exist in our society. While cultural change is important, ‘unconscious bias’ training is not usually framed within this vital context. Tools like anti-racist training might be more appropriate, and, in any case, training alone is not enough.

“We cannot find our way to liberation by situating these problems within the individual: this is a structural issue that comes as a result of a world made up of unequal power structures, and needs a structural approach to tackle.

“We will always advocate that change comes from giving communities and grassroots organisers the tools to realise their power. This doesn’t come just from a realisation of unconscious bias, but from dismantling power structures and education to develop active anti-racism.”

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?