Is diversity training snake oil? According to its proponents, women and minorities are not competing with white men on a level playing field when it comes to career advancement because of the ‘unconscious bias’ of their white male colleagues. The solution, if you’re the CEO of a large company, is to pay a ‘diversity consultant’ to train your managers to recognise and eliminate this bias. In America, it’s an $8-billion-a-year industry, yet a recent study in Australia suggests that, whatever is holding back women and minorities, it isn’t unconscious bias.
The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government has just published the results of a randomised control trial involving 21,000 employees of the Australian Public Service to see if the introduction of ‘blind recruiting’ would help promote gender equality and diversity. The employees were asked to shortlist candidates for a managerial position, with half of them being given their names and other identity markers and the other half not. If these public servants were suffering from unconscious bias, you would expect the ‘blindfolded’ group to be more likely to shortlist female and minority candidates and less likely to shortlist white men. In fact, the reverse happened.
The participants in the study were 2.9 per cent more likely to shortlist female applicants and 3.2 per cent less likely to shortlist male applicants when their identities were made clear. Minority males were 5.8 per cent more likely to be shortlisted and minority females 8.6 per cent more likely when their identities were known, and candidates who were lucky enough to be both female and from a minority background were virtually guaranteed a job.
The APS employees were suffering from bias all right, but it was bias in the other direction. It was only when the participants were forced to judge the job applicants on their merits, rather than gender or skin colour, that the white males got a fair shout.