Features, Privilege, Social Science

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas.

In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets to go to unconscious bias training again!” The message was clear: Hire more women and (non-Asian) minorities, or you will be sent to the detention hall after class to spend three hours in an uncomfortable chair being scolded for your biases.

Yes, at some point during every training session there is always some sort of lawyerly admonishment that we must not make decisions based on race or gender, and that ‘affirmative action’ is verboten. However, such admonishments are brief, and delivered only after we have heard that the dearth of female and minority professors in our field is due to our biased decisions. One could summarize the message as: “Nobody’s telling you to take decisions based on race or gender, we’re just telling you to take decisions that will help us achieve our goals in regards to race and gender.”

Left unmentioned are the dearth of women and (non-Asian) minorities earning PhDs in my field, or the fact that we offer low pay for high teaching loads in a place with a high cost of living.  We are expected to somehow get sufficient numbers of rare and sought-after people to apply for our jobs who will then accept our (lowball) offers. And I can assure you, women and (non-Asian) minorities are sought after. Sure, once upon a time, professors were reluctant to hire anyone other than a white male. Nowadays, we are desperate to hire anyone other than a white (or Asian) male. Deans have cancelled searches if the finalist pool is not sufficiently diverse, and even tried to fumble negotiations with a department’s top-ranked choice if a more ‘diverse’ alternative was waiting in the wings. After all, the Dean will never move up to a better job at a different school if he cannot show that he hit his diversity targets!

Some might say that the solution is simple: hire on merit! That sounds great on the surface, but real decisions always have a subjective element. The ideal candidate is a superb scholar with prolific output of creative and ground-breaking work in multiple sub-fields, a good track record of securing research grants, and prodigious experience teaching numerous courses (with excellent reviews) in exactly the areas where we most need additional expertise. Real candidates are human. There will always be debates about whether to favor the person whose research output is more abundant or the person whose work is of (apparently) higher quality. We’ll agonize over whether to hire the person with more extensive teaching experience or the one who has taught a few classes on topics where expertise is harder to find.

These are ultimately subjective decisions, where discretion has to be exercised by fallible humans doing their best with incomplete information. Unsavory biases can, of course, influence these decisions, but they can just as easily be influenced by the pressures exerted by university administrators. As Cornell University social scientists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have shown (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 28, 2015), recent hiring patterns in many science fields strongly suggest that the pressures exerted by Deans are working. Nobody wants to openly admit the existence of such pressures—some lawyer would promptly subpoena them on behalf of an unsuccessful job applicant, and they would immediately face institutional punishment. Nevertheless, they are real, as many professors will confirm behind closed doors.

So, I don’t doubt that Starbucks’s CEO will get the results he wants when he sends his employees to unconscious bias training. My boss did.


The author is a tenured professor in a STEM discipline. Sebastian Cesario is a pseudonym.


  1. Emmanuel says

    Heather Mac Donald from the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute has published a fascinating paper about the concept of unconscious bias : her main point is that the tests meant to discover such bias are worthless and that there is no evidence whatsoever that those biases (?) have any influence on people’s decisions.


    I find it amazing to see that an idea which relies on nothing but unsupported assertions has become so popular.

    • Robin says

      It exists because people with clout perceive a problem or they sense ancillary problems such as customers forgoing their goods/services because their company is labelled “racist”. Academics’ careers (as researchers and consultants) depend on their hypothesis about microaggressions and anti-bias training being considered correct. Being able to sidestep any serious doubters by calling them white supremacist, fascist or coon only reinforces their authority. They can use their positions as lecturers to ‘advertise’ their ‘product’ to a captive and somewhat primed audience – their students. Those kids then promulgate the notions of microaggressions and anti-bias training in wider culture.

    • I think people generally prefer to associate with their own kind – i.e. an ‘implicit bias’ can be said to exist. It’s a perfectly natural instinct to be ‘racist’ in this way. But whites – and only whites – are castigated for it. For example, because most white people still prefer to marry other white people, our society is considered racist. (technical term is ‘sexual racism’.)

      Any racial ‘gap’ or ‘imbalance’ whatsoever is evidence of racism. And the same goes for gender. As long as most people prefer to partner with members of the opposite sex, our society is sexist. To be heterosexual is to be sexist.

      There’s only 1 way to end racism, according to this logic – abolish race through intermarriage. And there’s only 1 way to end sexism: abolish the sex distinction.

      There’s no sense in arguing anymore whether our society is ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’. Of course it is: race and gender still exist.

      • Adeimantus says

        reminds me of the saying in Brave New World- “everyone belongs to everyone else”.

    • ADM64 says

      There are numerous ideas that are nothing more than unsupported assertions that nonetheless hold wide sway. Marxism is one. Post-modernism, which is self-contradictory, meaningless drivel, is another. The reason these “ideas’ have an influence is because they enable groups to achieve power or the unearned. In other words, look for what these things achieve and who benefits from them.

  2. Caligula says

    It does seems undeniable that this is about compliance, not “training.”

    By now everyone has learned to keep as low a profile as possible at such “training.” Offering an opinion (even one you think is “correct”) or any interaction has no upside at all, but plenty of downside. Because for the individual participant there are only two outcomes: “compliant” and, “needs improvement.” Especially for those not in a protected class, there are no potential rewards, but potential punishments aplenty.

    Perhaps mandatory participation this and similar “training” should come with a mandatory Miranda Warning?

    At least for now (until visual algorithmic thought & attitude decoding becomes routine), “Die Gedanken sind frei.”

    And never ever trust any assurances that any corporate-sponsored survey is or ever will be truly “anonymous”; if they want to find out who responded “incorrectly,” they will.

    • Glen L. Harvey says

      Compliance is a form of training isn’t it…..of course surrender would be the better course but who really wants that….

  3. Bill Casey says


    Because alleged biases in hiring by search committees are ‘unconscious’, then the only way to remedy them is via administrator intervention in the competitive hiring process. Search waivers are invoked to adjust the imbalance in competitive searches for scholars.

    All search committees in my STEM college are required to attend such training, where the statistics of PhD’s across the country are compared to the race and gender hiring at the university as a whole. Of course, the actual hiring numbers in STEM tell a much different story, but these are not shown. Instead, we’re trained to compensate for our unconscious biases in mandated courses.

    For example, over the 2009-2014 period, within my college, Science and Math, women and ‘people of color less asians’ (POCLA) were 15 and 4 percent of the applicant pools but 31 and 8 percent of the short lists provided by the Search Committees. These numbers align well with the claims may by Williams and Ceci in their PNAS article about gender hiring in STEM.

    Such statistics aren’t widely shared with the faculty because they undermine the call to waive competitive searches for scholars and ‘compensate’ our biases by administrator action and search waivers.

    Bill Casey

    • Bill says

      So, the result of unconscious bias training is to instill a conscious bias.

  4. Pizza Pete says

    Unconscious bias training is a win-win-win as the author points out. First, it reliably monetizes shakedowns into a pseudo-professional service that is slightly less nebulous than “diversity consulting.” Second, painful, boring wastes of time are reasonably effective deterrents. Third, the threat of unconscious bias training engenders more enthusiasm and appreciation for minority hires even if they are less qualified; that said diversity hires allow everyone else to avoid diversity training compensates substantially for deficiencies in their credentials. Win-win-win.

    The downside of course is that differential hiring will lead to differential achievement which will lead to more claims of unconscious bias which will lead to more unconscious bias training. However, if you’re an unconscious bias trainer selling your pseudo-professional, pseudo-scientific services, this is not bad, but good.

  5. ga gamba says

    The consciously biased put in charge of fixin’ those accused of being unconsciously so.

    Welcome to Bizarro World!

  6. KD says

    It is important to understand demonology in the modern world. If you have a problem with demonic possession, e.g. unconscious bias, in the scientific age, then you need a test that measures the influence of demons, e.g. unconscious bias testing.

    Of course, because unconscious bias testing does not predict any reliable behavioral predictions, it is basically an exorcism.

    Further, I think the explanation here is not punishment, but that Starbucks has incurred ritual pollution as a result of calling the police on two sacred loiterers, and now must go through a ritual process of expiation and atonement.

    Last, this brings out my beef with secularism: in secular societies, you have the same religious purity concepts and rituals, whether you call it blasphemy or hate speech, or exorcism or “unconscious bias training”. So we have just replaced one superstition with a new and better superstition, with a new and better set of priests profiteering from priestcraft.

    • James Lee says

      KD- You said it well here. This is just the new religion for left wing atheists, full of dogma, jargon, heresy, purity tests, and evil spirits that affect humans unconsciously and require the services of clergy (i.e. members of the diversity industry) to cleanse the heathen.

      It also has the marks of an old fashioned shakedown… a way to guilt groups into giving money and jobs to other tribes on a basis other than merit and hard work.

      Uh oh… saying the fruits of society should be awarded on the basis of talent and hard work and not predicated on skin color, gender, or sexual orientation is heresy- good thing i always carry my cat of nine tails so I can engage in old fashioned self-flagellation, you never know then the impulse to wrongthink can arise…

    • K says

      The more I think about this kind of stuff, the more I become convinced that the old Moral Majority has just bee replaced with a new Moral Majority.

      “Meet the old boss, same as the old boss.”

    • augustine says

      Your analogy holds to a point but religion provides two things rejected by secularists: transcendence and salvation. Otherwise secularism and naked reasoning might have dominated since ancient times.

  7. KD says

    In confession, the ritually unclean person confesses to the Hierophant, who represents the purity of the Divine, and receives foregiveness and absolution.

    In the social justice religion, the ritually unclean person possessing unclean thoughts and deeds, must confess and be in the presence of the sacred Racial Pure Hierophant, who represents the purity of the Divine, and who can magically absolve any stains of the magic Holocaust demons.

    As we know, the demons of Racism and the Holocaust are everywhere, and unless we constantly wash our hands and engage in ritual acts of piety, then the demons will come back and engulf our societies. Hate speech is violence, because it is the invocation of demonic powers, and threatens to ritually pollute our entire sacred order of Equality.

    • True, KD, but I think it also works on the side of the anti-social justice religion. Impure thoughts of Derrida and Marx invoke the Gulag, Borg, Orwellian thought control, and famine demons. In any case, there is a lot of cleansing going on in the Anglosphere.

  8. KD says

    I am skeptical that the ritual will work for Starbucks as it looks like the ADL was marginalized, and thus, it is unlikely that the Holocaust demons will be adequately repelled.

    • Pizza Pete says

      Seems like this is a thing with you.

  9. markbul says

    In the early-mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a biology program at a Boston US university. Five applicants came to give seminars for a new opening in the department, and I went to all of them. After the one woman was hired, I commented to my adviser that she was the one person I had ruled out – her work just didn’t seem particularly interesting, and some of the others looked great. He told me that the faculty had been told that if they didn’t take the woman, the administration wouldn’t give the department the money for the hire. Maybe she ended up doing great work, but my adviser obviously agreed with me at the time. And we did have women on the faculty at the time.

  10. I’m increasing coming to the view that, to disestablish the Cult of Diversity from the universities, we need some means to actually enforce existing non-discrimination law (that everyone knows is regularly violated). Professors who know about the wrong-doing currently have incentives against whistle-blowing, so it seems we need some way to reverse that. Some ideas:
    1) For state universities, we could simply make it a crime to promote “diversity” in hiring. (Maybe a $50k fine for every job posting with the words “diversity”, “inclusion” or “equity”.)
    2) Any administrator guilty of encouraging “diversity” in hiring (which includes unconscious bias training) will be fired, and forced to pay a fine of 1.5 times their combined stipend and pension. This money would be split between the departments the whistle-blowers.

    • Jay Salhi says

      Is there any evidence that female or minority candidates are discriminated against in the hiring process at universities, where the people making the hiring decisions are inevitably on the left and the far left? Are all these woke progressive academics, who have been the beneficiaries of all this diversity and anti-bias training nonetheless closeted KKK members?

      To the extent there is discrimination, it goes in the opposite direction. For example, female applicants for STEM tenure-track positions enjoy a two-to-one advantage over similarly qualified males in paired résumé experiments.


  11. Chester Draws says

    Sexual racism is not implicit in humans. The differences between races are far less than between breeds of dog — and a great Dane would happily shag a Chihuahua if it could reach.

    Ancient people’s didn’t have an issue with marrying other races (they often didn’t even understand the concept of “race”).

    Some places on the planet now are getting to the point where mixed race marriage is usual.

    Don’t confuse the US, where “miscegenation” seems to be a major boundary, with other places please. It is that way in the US because of remaining racial attitudes, not the other way round. It’s not a white thing in the US mind, blacks aren’t exactly trying to help end the division with insistence on a separate “blackness”.

    There’s no need to “abolish” anything. When people are truly comfortable with other races the issue of racial intermarriage goes away all by itself.

  12. Paolo says

    Dear anonymous writer, what is the big problem about showing your real name? Tenured professors, as it’s rightly been said, are among the most protected beings in the universe. How can all this be taken seriously, how isn’t all this made up.
    Paolo Scussolini
    Postdoctoral researcher

    • Sebastian Cesario says

      You ask a fair question. My answer is that I would never again be allowed to serve on a hiring committee, and thus would lose the opportunity to perform an important and satisfying part of the job, one that shapes the future of my department.

      Also, I would lose friends and research collaborators. I would have a job but not a career. I would lose some of the things that make the job worth having.

      Finally, with the volatility of diversity issues, I am not certain that I would be as protected as tenure supposedly makes me. I would be a target, and in a world with enough rules you can always find one that someone technically violated. You can always make trouble, you can always force someone into a position where they need a lawyer.

    • Jay Salhi says

      Tenure is of minimal protection against the SJW mob. See the Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis incidents.

  13. Chris says

    Unconscious bias training is a great tool for turning well-meaning liberals into vengeful Trump voters.

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