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Implicit bias training doesn't work. Here's what does.

OP/ED: In most departments, consistent underperformance results in termination. DEI isn’t like most departments. Despite billions of dollars in spending on DEI, the outcome has been underwhelming. Why? And is there a viable path forward?
Woman addressing her team
Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

In recent years, companies have been increasing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) budgets. In 2022, the DEI market was worth $9.5 billion, up from $7.5 billion in 2020. By 2026, that sum is expected to rise to $15.4 billion.

And today there are over 10,400 companies around the world who have pledged their commitment to gender equity, a 174 percent increase since 2019.

And if you ask DEI leaders, the majority — 86 percent — say the quantity of DEI spending is adequate. The quality of DEI spending, however, is not.


Spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion is not the same as investing money in DEI. Because when you invest, you expect a return. You expect a quantifiable outcome. In a capitalist society, we measure that outcome in dollars, and this is where DEI gets stuck.

One reason why DEI consistently underperforms as an investment is because it is people-based, not process-based. People-based focuses on women and people of color as the problem and is a cost center. Process-based focuses on the system as the problem and is a revenue driver.

One of the most popular DEI initiatives has been implicit bias training, a type of training that aims to expose employees to their biases that occurs automatically or unintentionally.

While the goal is admirable, time and again, the empirical evidence shows that at best, implicit bias training doesn’t work. That’s because:

1. It’s difficult to change attitudes and behaviors with short-term educational interventions.

2. Implicit bias training can reinforce harmful stereotypes.

3. Check-box diversity programs lead to complacency by artificially inflating confidence in cultural change.

4. It doesn't put the responsibility for change where it belongs: on male leadership. Remember, men lead 82 percent of all firms globally.

5. Employees respond negatively when they feel their autonomy is being taken away by external control measures, such as upper management trying to change employee beliefs.

Yes, bias is a problem. But implicit bias training is not the solution. It defies neurobiology. We can’t rewrite decades of cultural rules with quarterly lectures. Instead of spending more money on ineffective DEI solutions in the years ahead, I recommend integrating equity into existing talent processes.

Also, such initiatives can generate revenue. For every 10 percent increase in gender equity, there is a 1 to 2 percent increase in revenue. Plus, research shows that equitable and inclusive workplaces perform better during economic downturns than inequitable and exclusive workplaces. If you want to unlock the financial gains of DEI, follow these three recommendations in 2023:

1. Fix processes, not people

Start by inspecting every step of the employee lifecycle through the equity lens: recruiting, hiring, retention, pay, promotion, performance, and potential. Bias and inequity creep into each of these steps. Your job is to use gender and race-disaggregated data to identify inequity’s infiltration points, then create a plan to eliminate it. For example, my company found that a third of performance reviews contain bias. One solution to performance review bias could be using NLP to read performance evaluations and flag instances of bias.

2. Skill your workforce, equitably

Talent recruitment and retention presents the greatest organizational risk in 2023. And where there is risk, there is opportunity. Leaders should use this time to double down not on workforce skilling, but equitable workforce skilling. Equitable skilling ensure that all employees - regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, and age - have access to skilling and equitable access to apply those skills.

Women hold less than 33 percent of all data and artificial intelligence roles and represent less than 25 percent of the global talent base in many emerging professions. In other words, women are already underrepresented in the future labor force, never mind that 1.5 million of them are still missing from the labor force since the start of the pandemic. Mitigate the risk by ensuring all intersectional employee cohorts at your organization have access to opportunities to grow in their careers via equitable skilling.

3. Make a succession plan with the equity lens

Women’s representation among Fortune 500 CEOs only recently inched past the single-digit mark for the first time, ever. To improve diversity at the top, start with equity and inclusion at the bottom. By applying the equity lens to succession planning, you can sustainably increase the number of women leaders while avoiding accusations of tokenism.

Do you judge women’s potential the same as men’s? If not, figure out how to remove bias from potential evaluations. Research shows that women’s potential ratings are 5.8 percent lower than men’s.

How about promotional processes? Do you promote employees of different genders, races, and ethnicities at equitable rates? Our implementations show men receive promotions at a 21 percent greater rate than women. That rate doubles for Black women.

In 2023, I want leaders to stop spending on DEI and start investing in it. Fix processes instead of people. Upskill people equitably. And finally, start succession planning now by ensuring equity and inclusion at the lower rungs of the ladder. Follow these three recommendations and your shareholders will thank you.

Katica Roy is a gender economist and the CEO and founder of Denver-based Pipeline, an award-winning SaaS company that leverages artificial intelligence to identify and drive economic gains through gender equity. Pipeline launched the first gender equity app on Salesforce's AppExchange. The Pipeline platform was named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2019 and Fast Company’s 2020 World’s Most Innovative Companies.