Progress is hard — just ask Facebook.
Over the past year, the company has made little headway in diversifying its ranks, revealing last month in its latest diversity numbers that just 32 percent of employees are women, four percent are Hispanic and two percent are black. But Facebook insists that it’s trying. To that end, the company published videos of its own internal anti-bias training course today, hoping that other companies might take a cue.
With pressure on Silicon Valley to diversify beyond its largely male, white and Asian masses, bias training is in vogue. Google has poured money and resources into researching and developing programs to combat the unconscious bias lurking on its own campuses. And a host of startups like Textio and Paradigm have cropped up over the past year, promising to turn bias at tech companies into a venture-backed gold mine.
Silicon Valley companies seem to have realized that attracting diverse talent is good for business, and that attracting diverse talent requires first addressing the sometimes frat-like environments that exist within many companies.
“Managing bias can help us build stronger, more diverse and inclusive companies — and drive better business results,” Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, announcing the decision. “At Facebook, we’ve worked with leading researchers to develop a training course that helps people recognize how bias can affect them, and gives them tools to interrupt and correct for bias when they see it in the workplace."
Facebook’s course starts off by informing employees that “everybody in the world has bias.”
“It can be kind of useful at times,” Facebook diversity director Maxine Williams said. “It’s probably better to assume that every snake is poisonous and can kill.”
Another employee, Mike Rognlien, served as proof of this. Despite the fact that he grew up in a household with a working mom and has had mainly female managers in his career, taking an implicit-association test for gender revealed that he had a bias associating women with the home.
“I didn’t think this was a bias I was going to have,” he said. “But not only did I have biases with women at home, they were strong.”
In the same training module, a video showed people of different races, genders, and ages just introducing themselves. Rognlien then asked employees in the audience who they would hire and why, showing that their bias is implicit.
Facebook hopes that by showing its employees their biases exist, they might be more cognizant of them. The training video also gives them tools to counteract bias, like being on the lookout for trigger words, like “aggressive” — a word that is often a coded way of saying “masculine.”
Facebook has taken other steps towards diversifying as well. Last month, it announced that it would test out the “Rooney Rule” in hiring, an approach introduced by the NFL that requires teams to interview minorities in searches for positions like head coach and general manager.
But the real question is, even if you can make someone aware of their own biases, can you really prevent them from acting on them? Can you really prevent a male manager who prizes aggressiveness in his employees from hiring a bunch of guys?
For now it's unclear whether bias training really works, and, if it does, what type of training is most effective. One study published in 2007 looked at 829 companies over 31 years and found that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace." Other research has found, though, that making employees aware of bias can be a good start to other changes necessary to create a more inclusive workplace.
As always, Rognlien told employees in the video, the first step is admitting there’s a problem.
"Organizations and people who believe that they are meritocratic often have the worst outcomes,” he said.