Debating Unconscious Bias

27th January 2014

Oxford University has recently worked with the team at Marshall ACM to develop its in-house diversity and equality elearning course offering. More recently, the University has invested in developing an internal training module that specifically addresses the issue of unconscious bias.

But first, let’s be clear what unconscious bias is

We all hold natural biases it’s part of human nature and in the workplace this means that we can sometimes behave towards a person in a certain way that is based on that bias. This style of thinking tends to override rational decisions and logical thinking and it’s not something we can particularly help. Whilst the majority of us would hate to think we’re basing our decisions about people on stereotypes, we actually do so purely on instinct.

Our unconscious biases are also exaggerated when we’re stressed, angry or frustrated and these are the danger points when it comes to the workplace. Naturally, not many people like to admit to being biased against someone due to disability, gender and to a certain extent, age. However, research shows us that the difference between a bias expressed explicitly and implied are on a similar scale, but higher than most people would like to admit.

A perfect introduction to the topic

Here, Judith Secker, Professional Development Adviser at Oxford University’s Oxford Learning Institute, explains why this was an important training offering for the University and how it has been developed and rolled out.

Employees at the University currently take the Marshall ACM online unconscious bias elearning course as an introduction to the subject before they participate in a three-hour in-house seminar on the topic. The pre-course module is the perfect introduction to the topic and sets the scene for the more in-depth seminar work, letting participants familiarise themselves with the topic of unconscious bias before the more in-depth work begins.

Watch a 2-minute video on our Unconscious Bias course:

The module only takes 15 minutes to complete, which I think encourages participants to make the time to learn more about the topic before the session. This preparation also ensures that everyone is at the same speed and in a strong position when they get to the classroom learning environment to discuss how unconscious bias may impact on their own decision making, as well as the informal and formal decisions made within their teams or departments. Without this type of introduction the seminar could easily get mired in a discussion about the concept, such is the culture of a university!

The University’s unconscious bias seminar is currently held twice a year and is open to all staff, although participants tend to be those with responsibility for others, such as lead administrators or those who have an active role in recruitment and selection.

Throughout the classroom-based seminar session participants are encouraged to talk about their own experiences and become aware of themselves; on this basis we can take appropriate action to address a bias or particular behaviour only when we’re aware of it. All participants complete an action plan to take back to their day job which helps them to reflect on the personal changes they would like to make.

More recently, the University has been offering more bespoke unconscious bias seminars for specific departments, such as Science, who are seeking to achieve recognition under the Athena SWAN charter, which seeks to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics.

Whilst Judith Secker acknowledges that it is not possible to make a direct link between the Marshall ACM unconscious bias module and the University’s in-house seminar on unconscious bias and the reduction of this in the organisation, she does believe that such a link exists.

I feel we are making a direct contribution to highlighting the issue of unconscious bias and helping employees to develop action plans that can address and manage their unconscious bias in their professional and personal lives, she says.

Learn more

We currently offer an Unconscious Bias elearning course for UK learners and an Unconscious Bias (US) elearning course for learners in the US. If you would like to find out more about either course please call us onĀ  +44 (0)20 7936 9329

Free Trial
Get a