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Unlearning unconscious biases in L&D

To help you get a grasp on unlearning, we’ll recap unlearning for L&D, before honing in on unlearning unconscious biases. We’ll ask what are unconscious biases, then move onto recognising unconscious biases, and how to unlearn unconscious biases for a more inclusive L&D. 
Dom Murray, Content Writer
2021-02-17

True or false: goldfish only have three-second memories? Despite the common myth to the contrary, this is false. Some studies even estimate that their memories last up to five months, but that’s beside the point. The point is, you most likely grew up believing that goldfish have three-second memories, before later learning this is a myth, and unlearning this ‘fact’. Maybe you’re only just finding out it’s untrue now and unlearning on the fly.

Either way, this is an example of unlearning. In the most basic terms, unlearning is the process of updating your knowledge when presented with new information. Out with the old, in with the new.  

We introduced the concept of unlearning in our recent blog on the learn, unlearn, relearn cycle. Now, we’re back for more. 

To help you get a grasp on unlearning, we’ll recap unlearning for L&D, before honing in on unlearning unconscious biases. We’ll ask what are unconscious biases, then move onto recognising unconscious biases, and how to unlearn unconscious biases for a more inclusive L&D. 

Recap: unlearning for L&D

As strange as it sounds, unlearning is one of the hottest learning trends of 2021. We explain why in our recent blog on the learn, unlearn, relearn cycle, so, if you haven’t already, reading that is a great starting point. 

For those in need of a quick recap, we defined unlearning as “a healthy, natural, and necessary step in the learning process: being open to different perspectives, and willing to update your beliefs when presented with new information that challenges previously-held conceptions.” 

HR Technologist takes a similar view, defining unlearning as “part of a cycle where the learner refreshes the mind, lets go of old-fashioned notions, and embraces new concepts.” 

Letting go of old-fashioned notions is important because — as you have probably noticed — L&D is changing quickly. You might say that change is the only constant. For example, only 5% of L&D teams expect their strategy to revert to what it was pre-COVID. 

All of this change requires a high degree of adaptability by unlearning old ideas and relearning new ones, making unlearning an essential skill for L&D professionals. 

L&D thinking habits

In the context of L&D, unlearning can manifest in many ways. In our recent eBook 5 new thinking habits for a smarter, stronger L&D, L&D experts Michelle Ockers, Shannon Tipton, and Laura Overton identify several engrained ‘thinking habits’ for L&D professionals to challenge — and even unlearn. They define thinking habits as “the persistent perspectives and settled tendencies that influence the way we think about our professional world of L&D work.” 

Often, these ‘settled tendencies’ go unnoticed, as we simply operate on autopilot. The mindset is: ‘this is just how we do things, why change?’ As a result, many L&D thinking habits go unexamined. Instead, we take them for granted. Unlearning means actively interrogating your thinking habits to ensure they are adding value. Another aspect of this is replacing outdated thinking habits when necessary.

For their complete expert insights, be sure to download the eBook 5 new thinking habits for a smarter, stronger L&D. However, two examples of thinking habits that L&D can challenge and potentially unlearn are Learning First (‘I solve learning problems’) vs. Business First (‘I solve business problems’), as well as Hold On (‘My approach is shaped by past success’) vs. Move On (‘My approach is shaped by a willingness to let go’). 

What is unconscious bias? 

For many, a crucial aspect of the unlearning process is unlearning unconscious bias. To do this, you must first understand what unconscious bias is. 

The term unconscious bias — often referred to interchangeably as implicit bias — was coined by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in 1995. They argued that unconscious associations and judgments influence our social behaviours. Accordingly, they define unconscious bias as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way, making them difficult to control.”

The Office of Diversity and Outreach echoes this, defining unconscious bias as “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, unconscious biases differ from other biases in that they are unconscious. They form and manifest without us realising. As such, they are difficult to recognise and control. These biases can be based on numerous factors, such as societal or parental conditioning, stereotyping, media intake, past experiences, and our brains’ propensity to organise things into ‘neat’ categories. 

Often, unconscious biases show up when we are operating on autopilot. If you have a ‘gut feeling’ when making an important decision, that can be unconscious bias at play. That’s just how you have been conditioned to react to a given set of stimuli. For these reasons, actively interrogating, updating, and unlearning certain beliefs and assumptions is critical. 

Examples of unconscious bias

Future Learn outlines many concrete examples of unconscious bias. For example, blonde women are paid 7% more than brunettes in the UK, while 40% of Americans associate a Southern accent with being uneducated. 

Additionally, one of the most common forms of unconscious bias occurs in the hiring process. Research shows that candidates who have stereotypically ‘foreign’ sounding names receive 50% fewer interview callbacks than other candidates. 

Impact Group offers wide-ranging examples of unconscious bias in the workplace, finding that, “48% of African American women and 47% of Latina women report being mistaken for administrative or custodial staff.”

Similarly, a study by Yale University found that male and female scientists, who were all trained to be objective, were more likely to hire men, consider men more competent than women, and pay men $4,000 more per year than women.

Unconscious bias doesn’t just manifest in factors like gender and race — even height is not exempt. In America, 15% of the male population are taller than 6 foot. Yet, 60% of corporate CEO’s are taller than 6 foot. 

Ultimately, these unconscious biases can have huge, business-wide ramifications. Impact Group estimates the cost of unconscious bias to be a massive $64 billion per year. Further, of those who have experienced unconscious workplace bias, just over a third say they feel alienated and reluctant to share ideas, while 80% say they would not refer others to work for their organisation. 

Unlearning unconscious bias for a more inclusive L&D 

Recognising when these biases occur is the hardest part of unlearning unconscious biases. As Future Learn says, “unconscious bias happens involuntarily without any awareness or intentional control.” So, how exactly do you recognise unconscious biases, and take steps to unlearn them? 

Recognising unconscious bias

When it comes to recognising unconscious bias, the good news is that we’re all in this together. Literally. Everyone has unconscious biases. That’s just how human brains operate. The question is not, ‘do I have unconscious biases?’, but rather, ‘what are my unconscious biases?’ 

Thankfully, acknowledging that you have unconscious biases is a good first step to unlearning your unconscious biases. By being more aware of unconscious biases, you are more likely to catch them when they occur. 

Behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal explains this, saying, “the more we talk openly about our biases — individual, interpersonal, and systemic — the more it helps...as does having more conversations involving different communities.” 

Dr Agarwal, who recently wrote a book on unconscious bias, outlines other methods to recognise unconscious biases on a societal level. She explains, “we also need to have more conversations in different domains in an open and nonjudgmental way...this will involve looking at words and images that perpetuate and reinforce these stereotypes, and it will require the media to take more responsibility and be accountable.”

She also says bias training can be beneficial for recognising unconscious bias — provided that training is carried out in a meaningful way. According to Dr Agarwal, a day-long course or hour-long test is not enough to undo a lifetime of unconscious biases. Rather, unconscious bias training must be a rigorous and ongoing process, wherein participants continually and actively evaluate their unconscious biases. 

Unlearning unconscious bias

Ultimately, there is no catch-all solution for recognising or unlearning unconscious biases. Some will probably still pass you by. However, don’t let that discourage you. When attempting to unlearn a lifetime of unconscious biases, awareness and commitment are crucial.

Diversity & Inclusion thought leader and Chief Disruption Officer at Emberin, Maureen Frank, provides two excellent pieces of advice for unlearning unconscious bias in her recent guest blog for Go1

Firstly, she invites you to “bring your unconscious thoughts into your consciousness, challenge them, and ask yourself whether your thinking is based on factual information before you take action.”

Secondly, she reminds us that, “when dealing with bias, one key thing to remember is: you are not responsible for your first thought; you are responsible for your second thought and your first action.”  

Putting these two pieces of advice into practice can go a long way towards unlearning unconscious biases to create a more inclusive and accepting L&D. 

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