New online course attempts to erode unconscious gender bias

by Michael Mata19 Oct 2016
A new online course, designed by the UN Women’s HeForShe Movement and PricewaterhouseCoopers International (PwC), aims to heighten awareness of unconscious gender bias in corporate life. Unconscious bias training has become a popular educational tool for companies, now that employees, politicians, activists, and investors are pressuring companies to tackle this issue. 

The newly launched course runs for 35 minutes, and blends interactive exercises (such as a true/false test) with videos showing experts talking about gender identity and gender roles in today’s world and throughout history. 

The course begins with an introductory video by Elizabeth Nyamayaro (head of the HeForShe Movement) talking about the reasons behind the course. Nyamayaro notes that every day, women and girls “are denied basic human rights [and] we need to do something about that.” The course not only helps participants see how unconscious assumptions mold gender norms, roles, and relations, but also helps participants understand the costs involved.  

The true/false test focuses on automatic associations and queries about the percentage of women in the global workforce, interspersed with videos in which experts discuss gender identity. Other videos show young men and women talking about their favourite toys and activities while they were growing up.

While the course grades participants on the individual assessments, it gives no final “gender IQ” score. At the end, there is a call-to-action, which offers steps to address bias issues in the workplace.

Though the course was developed by PwC to train employees in-house, the firm may disseminate it to other clients in the near future. A number of prominent companies – such as Google, Facebook, and Lockheed Martin – have developed similar gender bias awareness programs.  

But do such courses really produce lasting change? A recent article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review argued that diversity training doesn’t always produce the intended results. The article cited a study which surveyed 829 companies over 31 years to determine if diversity training had a positive effect on the average workplace.

According to the study, despite millions of dollars spent on diversity training, it did little to erode existing cognitive biases. “In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity,” the researchers concluded.

The problem could be that mandatory training sometimes breeds resentment, as it can put managers on the defensive. To combat this, PwC said it would make its training course voluntary for its employees.