Can anti-bias trainings make workplaces more fair and bridge the pay gap? Scholars and employees weigh in

"What anti-oppression training does is provide the practice we need to solve real life problems."


On May 29, 2018, Starbucks closed all their locations to administer anti-bias training to their staff in response to an incident in Philadelphia where a Starbucks manager called the police on two Black men for being in the coffee shop and waiting for a friend. That same year, Papa John's rolled out anti-bias training in response to their founder John Schnatter saying he used racist slurs.

What started as a trickle of interest became a flood in 2020, after George Floyd was killed, and a slew of other corporations — including Target and Google — rushed to implement anti-racism, implicit bias, and anti-bias training. 

These trainings are meant to address various key issues, including how to create safe spaces for POC customers, how large companies can affect public policy, and how to combat the systemic racism that can keep people of color, often specifically Black people, from thriving and advancing in the workplace.

A goal of anti-racism training at Target is to "create a workplace where Black team members can build meaningful careers and experience success at every level," according to a company statement. Google's anti-racist training is meant to "help develop stronger awareness and capacity for creating spaces where everyone feels they belong," according to a company statement. And Papa John's CEO Steve Ritchie wrote in a statement that he is "personally committed to adding more diversity to the leadership team of Papa John's."

But will the normalization of anti-bias training make workplaces more fair? And can they effect material change, for example by helping bridge the racial pay gap and promotion gap?

Some scholars and training attendees alike are skeptical about what anti-bias training in and of itself can accomplish. These programs have yet to deliver broad or visible results on the most crucial part of workplace equality: equal pay. And right now it's too early to tell whether the proliferation of anti-bias trainings in 2020 will result in smaller wage and wealth gaps.

However, other experts say that anti-bias training — when implemented with other policy changes — can help in closing the racial wage gap in part by facilitating necessary, important conversations. Trainings, when done right, address power imbalances in the office and can be illuminating for many employees.

Trainings need to be accompanied by action, 'accountability'

For anti-racism training to work, you need those in power to want to close the racial wage gap, says Tina Opie, chief vision officer at Opie Consulting and associate professor of management at Babson College: "I think the top has to buy into the issue and believe that it's even a problem." 

Training also needs to be followed up or accompanied by action, she adds.

Other scholars agree that trainings can lead to change. "I wouldn't say it's a waste of money," says Reggie Byron, a sociology professor at Southwestern University. "It may help with changing the workplace culture, which is really important." But, like Opie says, the training in a vacuum won't do much.

"In order to make progress, you really need some form of accountability," Byron says. "Anti-racism training typically occurs at the employee level and then the employees move on from that experience and nothing really happens." 

You need anti-racist training, but you also need structural change to, for example, help close the wage gap, he says: "It's not an 'either/or.' It's a 'both/and.'" 

Anti-racism training typically occurs at the employee level and then the employees move on from that experience and nothing really happens.
Reggie Byron
sociology professor at Southwestern University

How to do anti-bias trainings 'properly'

Proper anti-racism training assesses who in the office has power and who doesn't. "Racism is power plus prejudice," Opie says. "Many managers are ill-equipped to talk about power dynamics. They are afraid they will offend people in the dominant culture. That the dominant culture will say this is reverse racism. But that's not it at all." 

Anti-racism training can close the wage gap "if done properly," she says. It's better not to make the focus of them personal responsibility: Trainings shouldn't include teaching women or minorities to negotiate a higher salary or "lean in," for example, she says. 

"Most people agree there are racially disparate outcomes, but people of particular political ideologies believe it is because certain people are outperforming others," she says. "This would mean white men are outperforming every other group, and I reject that, full stop." 

It's OK if trainings make some people uncomfortable, Opie adds. "What kind of discomfort do you want to cause? Do you want to create discomfort for marginalized peoples and their allies and advocates? Or discomfort for those who want to maintain the status quos, and their allies and advocates?" 

Many managers are ill-equipped to talk about power dynamics. They are afraid they will offend people in the dominant culture. That the dominant culture will say this is reverse racism.
Tina Opie
associate professor of management at Babson College

Pooja Kothari, founder of Boundless Awareness, a company that provides unconscious bias training, agrees that if done properly, these trainings will absolutely help close the wage gap. A moderator with knowledge and understanding is key. "My worst fear is when a group of people get together to have a conversation about racism and there is no experienced facilitator involved," she says. "That kind of free-for-all conversation can be extremely harmful."

Trainings that simply acknowledge that biases are widespread can backfire, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Managers who were told that stereotypes are common were 28% less interested in hiring female candidates who negotiated aggressively. They also judged female candidates as 27% less likable.

However, when managers were told that a "vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions," the subsequent discrimination disappeared. Managers were 28% more interested in working with female applicants and judged them as 25% more likable.

If managers don't believe in the work Kothari and Opie are doing, women of color, specifically Black women, are the ones who lose out, Kothari adds. "What anti-oppression training does is provide the practice we need to solve real life problems," she says. "Normally what happens is people may not have this training, then microaggressions and worse happen. The racial wealth gap is perpetuated. The gender pay gap is perpetuated." 

What anti-oppression training does is provide the practice we need to solve real life problems.
Pooja Kothari
founder of Boundless Awareness

Employers have to be willing to look at their own practices, which, she admits, is scary: "When you do anti-oppression work, you have to critique yourself. For companies that are willing to critique their own power structure, those are the ones who have never asked me about my pricing." 

She likens anti-racism training to training for a marathon. To prepare for a marathon you need to run, but it's also smart to do squats and lift weights. Anti-racism training is one of many things that will contribute to closing the wage gap, but it's not the only thing companies should be doing, she says: "To say it is not worth it because there is no proof [it closes the wage gap] is like saying those squats didn't really help you train for the marathon." 

The concern: Companies 'are doing it to check a box'

Ian Rowe, a resident fellow of domestic policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, challenges the notion that anti-bias training leads to equal pay or improves the experiences people of color have in the office.

"I think most of the companies that are doing this are doing it to check a box," he says. "To make a performative action so they can escape being called a racist organization. With most anti-bias training, there is zero evidence that any of it results in better outcomes for people engaged."

And many companies do hold anti-racism trainings performatively, Byron says: Doing so is cheaper than actually closing the wage gap and creates the illusion that the company is addressing racism. 

"Many employers are looking to solve this problem as quickly and as cheaply as is possible, and sometimes they gravitate toward anti-racist and anti-bias racist training for that reason," he says. 

With most anti-bias training, there is zero evidence that any of it results in better outcomes.
Ian Rowe
resident fellow, AEI

Aside from believing anti-bias training is ineffective at closing the wage gap, Rowe of the American Enterprise Institute also doesn't believe that it improves company culture. By design, he says, anti-racism training leads to more division

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that it leads to more fractured relationships among adults," he says. "Many of these trainings physically segregate adults by race and typically have some kind of struggle session where white employees are told they have to renounce their whiteness and that they are the oppressor. They have to renounce their white privilege. They set up a hierarchy where white people are evil and all the non-white people are oppressed in some way." 

Workers fear anti-bias training is 'virtue signaling'

Jordan Lewis, 26, has been a brand manager at Unilever in New Jersey for three years. Diversity courses have always been offered, but after George Floyd was killed the programs did increase, says Lewis, who is white: "I did have greater understanding and sensitivity about the day-to-day challenges of people of color, in particular Black people." 

Though Lewis doesn't think anti-racism trainings are enough to close the wage gap, they were worthwhile for him because they provided a different perspective.

Nadra Nittle, a Los Angeles-based reporter in her 30s, has a different take. During her career, Nittle, who is Black, has attended about half a dozen diversity trainings through various employers. Some were specifically meant to be anti-racism or anti-bias trainings. None was designed in a way that could help the bottom line for people of color in the workplace: "I'm not sure how anti-racist training would help curb any sort of pay gap."

I'm not sure how anti-racist training would help curb any sort of pay gap.
Nadra Nittle

More substantive actions that might help often aren't implemented, she says.

Take the Rooney Rule, for example, an affirmative action policy instated by the National Football League in 2003 that states that league teams must interview at least one ethnic minority for head coach positions. There is no requirement as to who teams hire, though. Similar practices have been adopted by large corporations. Pinterest, for example, implemented its version of the Rooney Rule in 2017, wherein one female and one person of an underrepresented minority must be interviewed for each leadership position.

When Nittle asked a now former employer to utilize some form of that rule while hiring, management refused, though it did invest in anti-racism training.

"If a company wasn't going to agree to change their hiring practices and their salaries, then the anti-racist training does seem like it is just virtue signaling," she says. 

Black experts: What's missing from the conversation around the racial wealth gap

Video by Courtney Stith

In another anti-bias training Nittle attended at a different company, the facilitator said most of the racism at the company was from Black people using slurs. "This was a workplace where there were very few Black people and no one was saying the N-word in the workplace," she says. "It was very strange. It was like the trainer was saying racism isn't a problem and if it is it's because Black people are calling each other the N-word."

Trainings are often presented without any kind of goal in mind, Nittle says, and can feel pointless. "I think most people view them kind of with dread," she says. "Often people are working on other things and it's another thing you want to check off your list. I don't think there's a very deep understanding about why these training sessions might be necessary."

Angelica, who asked that her real name be withheld for fear of retaliation from future employers, had a similar experience to Nittle at a New York City-based PR firm. After George Floyd was killed, her company held a half-day seminar about prejudice. It did not really affect her everyday experience as a Black woman in the workplace. "As the only POC on a team of three white women, I felt excluded a lot already," she says. "This did not change."

From what she could see, it also didn't result in more pay for anyone.

"In media, I've found you need unpaid internships to get a foot in the door," she says. Those who do get paid internships are offered "barely living wages, often under 40K, for a period of one to two years before being given something more manageable," she says. "These practices prevent POC and underprivileged groups from opportunities to use their education or to work themselves out of poverty. Even now there are several co-workers of mine who need part-time jobs because they aren't 'senior enough' to make living wages." 

Neither Nittle nor Angelica think anti-racist training is a waste of money or time, but when done improperly and not paired with actions, they acknowledge that it can feel that way.

When asked if any positive changes came out of her company's training, Angelica could only really think of one thing: "We did get Juneteenth off." 

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