Unconscious Bias vs Conscious Inclusion; It’s Not Just Semantics.

Published on: Mon 10 May 2021 by Emma Baldwin

Unconscious Bias training has had a lot of bad press recently. Journalists, CEOs and civil servants alike, have all claimed: It Does Not Work. A bold and broad-brush statement which will no doubt trigger confirmation bias in sceptics and frustration in advocates of change.

But surely, in the same way that buying trainers and going for a run doesn’t make us marathon-ready, a dose of Unconscious Bias training is unlikely to be the panacea that eradicates discrimination, bias, stereotyping and exclusion. Transformation takes time and commitment. But, as running your first mile is a commendable start to becoming a marathon runner, raising awareness of Unconscious Bias through training is an important step on the journey to building a more inclusive culture. Stating ‘unconscious bias training does not work’ not only unhelpfully pigeonholes short awareness sessions with modular, action-focused learning solutions, it will no doubt discourage and confuse organisations keen to invest in positive action. But arguably, the damage is already done.

Ironically, the bad press around Unconscious Bias will be absorbed and build negative connotations in the subconscious over time. Driven by the niggles we often label ‘gut reaction’, decision makers, influenced by messages in the media, will hesitate in the split-second following a suggestion they make resource available to tackle hidden bias. If as an HR and training community we are committed to breaking down unhelpful stereotypes and toxic organisational cultures, we need to offer a viable, ROI-guaranteed solution.

Is it time to change our language?

Research suggests that more than 90% of our thought-processes are driven by the automatic, unconscious part of the brain. This means that, contrary to our own personal beliefs about how inclusive we are, we are unequivocally influenced by the associations we unknowingly make between this-and-that from a very young age. But this does not make us bad people. It just means that we’ve all got to put in the work to sift through and separate associations that help us from the ones we need to rewrite.

When we introduce new and previously unnavigated experiences, objects or language into our world we are working from a blank slate. Instead of relying on our archives and quick-thinking, we are forced to consider things afresh with the conscious mind. By introducing connotation-free terminology – such as Conscious Inclusion – into the Diversity and Inclusion conversation, we are forced to reflect consciously on what we are saying, and what we really mean. We have an opportunity to build positive and helpful associations…

Why ‘Conscious Inclusion’?

Conscious Inclusion first and foremost places an emphasis on having to play an active part in proceedings. Unconscious Bias is a phenomenon; Conscious Inclusion is an action.

Raising awareness of our decision-making processes and the part unconscious bias plays in who we choose (not) to sit next to on the train, which colleagues we hang out with at lunch, or which candidate we offer the job to, is an important ingredient but it is part of a complex recipe. To make a long-lasting difference we must also provoke a desire to change, bring the unconscious to the conscious, and maintain awareness of our decisions and interactions until new habits are embedded by individuals and organisations.

Conscious Inclusion is positive terminology that serves to better manage expectations by nuancing that Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is very much a journey, not a destination.

Paula Whelan, our Head of Diversity & Inclusion said, “I often hear people say, ‘well if it’s unconscious then I can’t do anything about it’. Conscious Inclusion is a really helpful umbrella term that covers the unconscious bias awareness bit as well as the fact that, for organisation to see the change they want, we must translate what we know into conscious, personal action.”

Conscious Inclusion Training

Find out more about our four-module Conscious Inclusion training for managers. You can book onto the next cohort of our open programmes, or delivered in-house, face-to-face or live-online.