Unconscious Bias Interventions for Business: An Initial Test of WAGES-Business (Workshop Activity for Gender Equity Simulation) and Google’s “re:Work” Trainings
Experiential learning may be more effective in training employees to recognize and address unconscious bias than less interactive anti-bias initiatives.
Unconscious bias, or thought processes involving automatic, unfair judgements of people based on their belonging to a social group, has been increasingly recognized as a problem in the workplace. Academics, consultants, and industry professionals have developed trainings to mitigate unconscious bias specific to business settings. However, few of these programs have been systematically evaluated, leaving their ultimate effectiveness in the workplace relatively unknown. Broader research on anti-bias trainings demonstrates that even well-intentioned initiatives can prove ineffective or even backfire.
Google's "Unconscious Bias @ Work" training, for example, is a publicly-available industry standard that has received only internal review. To identify effective anti-bias training practices, the authors sought to replicate and empirically evaluate Google's training compared against a newly-designed, interactive anti-bias initiative, WAGES-Business. Google's training format, like many widely use in business, consisted of a PowerPoint lecture presenting scientific findings on unconscious bias followed by a Q&A session. WAGES-Business, however, incorporated theory-grounded experiential learning methods (where participants learn by doing). WAGES-Business presented scenarios of unconscious gender bias in business in a game setting. Players progressed along a game board to reach the highest level of professional attainment before concluding the exercise with a facilitator-led discussion.
To compare the trainings' effectiveness, the authors randomly assigned participants to undergo either the Google training, the WAGES-Business training, or a control condition, and then followed up with surveys assessing the impact on the participants' acknowledgment of bias, knowledge of gender equity issues, willingness to discuss bias, willingness to confront bias, concern about bias, reactance (a resistant response to perceived threats to freedom of behavior), and self-efficacy (hopefulness about using the information provided).
Taken together, the three parts of the study suggested that WAGES-Business was more effective than Google's training, both immediately after the trainings and after one or two weeks.
Study 1 suggested that WAGES-Business may be a more effective method than Google's Unconscious Bias @ Work training with some important caveats.
- WAGES-Business and Google training participants were both comparable and more likely to acknowledge unconscious bias than the control condition.
- WAGES-Business participants were more knowledgeable of gender equity issues, more willing to discuss bias, and more willing to confront bias, than the control condition.
- WAGES-Business participants were more knowledgeable of gender equity issues than the Google training.
- WAGES-Business and Google's training produced comparable levels of reactance.
- Google's training resulted in higher self-efficacy.
Study 2a suggests that WAGES-Business may be a more effective method than Google's Busting Bias @ Work training in instilling concern about unconscious bias and may also increase reactance.•
- Participants in the WAGES-Business expressed greater concern about unconscious bias than both the control condition and Google’s Busting Bias @ Work.
- Participants in the WAGES-Business had greater knowledge of gender equity issues than the control condition.
- WAGES-Business and Google's Busting Bias @ Work were comparable and both produced greater willingness to discuss and confront bias than the control condition.
- WAGES-Business and Google's Busting Bias @ Work produced comparable reactance levels as measured by message rejection, and WAGES-Business produced greater reactance levels as measured by negative emotional reaction and feelings of threatened freedom.
Study 2b suggested that only WAGES-Business was effective in producing recognition of bias and intentions to confront bias after a time lag.
- When bias was present, WAGES-Business participants recognized bias to a greater extent than the participants of the control condition.
- In the absence of bias, Google's training participants were better at ruling out bias when it wasn't present than control participants.
- When bias was present, WAGES-Business participants expressed intentions to confront bias to a greater extent than the participants of the control condition.
Collectively, these results reveal that acknowledging the existence of bias is conceptually different from identifying bias as something to be concerned about and act on. It also shows that trainings providing concrete examples of bias in everyday situations may be more effective in building knowledge about bias and the ability to recognize it and those providing opportunities to practice bias confronting behaviors, may be more effective in building future motivations to act against bias.
This comparison between an anti-bias intervention in standard use in business to one grounded in experiential learning included three distinct parts. All three relied on undergraduate student participants recruited from a psychology pool for course credit.
Study 1 compared the effectiveness of Google's Unconscious Bias @ Work training, the WAGES-Business training, and a control condition in increasing acknowledgement of unconscious bias, knowledge of gender equity issues in the workplace, willingness to discuss bias, and willingness to confront instances of bias. To do so, the study assigned mixed-gender groups of eight to twelve people to each condition, tailored to be comparable in length. In the Google training condition, participants were seated in rows, received a brief introduction, and watched a video of the company's PowerPoint-style lecture from which references to Google were removed. In the WAGES-Business condition, whose structure was adapted from an academic context to a business one, participants were presented with scenarios of gender bias in the workplace setting, though gendered language was removed from the intervention, and then engaged in facilitated discussion. In the control setting, participants did not receive any training. Participants were asked to rate items that comprised each of the following measures on a seven-point Likert scale (one being strongly disagree, seven being strongly agree): acknowledgment of bias, knowledge of gender equity issues in the workplace, willingness to discuss bias, willingness to confront bias, reactance, and self-efficacy.
Study 2a compared the effectiveness of Google's in-person, active Busting Bias @ Work module; a version of WAGES-Business modified to include a handout on addressing unconscious bias and new role-playing exercises; and a control condition, in fostering willingness to confront bias. Thus, it examined the importance of instilling concern about bias, rather than awareness of its existence alone, in motivating employees to confront bias. Participants were assigned to one of the three conditions and then asked to rate the same measures used in Study 1 on the same seven-point scales, as well as two new measures of concern about unconscious bias and kinds of reactance (threatened freedom, negative emotional response, and message rejection).
Study 2b compared the effects of the trainings administered in Study 2a on participants' long term ability to recognize the presence of unconscious bias and their intentions to confront bias through action. Researchers contacted participants one week after their participation in Study 2a with an invitation to complete a follow-up survey for course credit. The survey consisted of a series of six vignettes with hypothetical situations that either did or did not feature bias and included prompts for participants to rate on a seven-point scale, first, whether or not they perceived bias in the vignette and, second, whether or not they would act to confront the bias.