Skip to content

Implicit Bias Training: Is It Right for Building Professionals?

With equity on the minds of many in the green building community, some are looking to bias training—but it might not be as effective as you expect.

by Paula Melton

International Women’s Day gathering at Opsis Architecture
As part of its holistic equity program, Opsis Architecture celebrates International Women’s Day with firm-wide activities each year. Photo: Opsis Architecture

Implicit biases—the unconscious assumptions we make about people based on their gender, race, physical ability, and many other factors—don’t stay buried. They lead to adverse decisions and behavior that we don’t even recognize as sexist, racist, or ableist. Implicit bias is particularly dangerous in situations ripe for violence, as when armed police officers are interacting with a person of color. But it’s also a scourge in relatively tame circumstances—like when Black people are hanging out in a Starbucks.

And the building industry is far from immune. Look around any architecture or engineering firm, and you’re likely to see mostly white, mostly male faces. Professionals in the construction industry are also predominantly male and white. (See more about the statistics in Re-Forming the Building Industry: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.) These skewed workplaces are, in large part, an outcome of implicit bias. Then there’s the building projects themselves. Most of the time, the voices of marginalized stakeholders are not even sought out, let alone heard and honored, which can lead to community harm. (Find case studies of projects that have attempted to overcome these problems in Equity in Design and Construction: Seven Case Studies.)

The green building community is beginning to recognize that it has a serious problem. And many people are turning to implicit bias training as a way to address these systemic issues.

Does it work?

Implicit bias training has been around for years now, and the science is starting to come in on its effectiveness. It’s not looking good.

“To date, none of these interventions has been shown to result in permanent, long-term reductions of implicit bias scores or, more importantly, sustained and meaningful changes in behavior,” note Tiffany L. Green and Nao Hagiwara in Scientific American. They go on, “Despite the widespread calls for implicit bias training, it will likely be ineffective at best; at worst, it’s a poor use of limited resources that could cause more damage and exacerbate the very issues it is trying to solve.”

Focusing on individuals’ biases doesn’t solve systemic problems, Green and Hagiwara conclude, and organizations need to do much more than a few days of training.

Changing the system

So what counts as “much more”? If bias training alone isn’t effective, where do you turn instead (or in addition)?

Some are blazing a path into radical self-questioning and organizational change. It’s not easy.

“Systemic change will require a lot of different types of triggers over time,” Yarden Harari, AIA, associate at CallisonRTKL, told BuildingGreen. The firm has undertaken a panoply of initiatives, including a Just label, formation of a social action committee, facilitated roundtable discussions, workshops on workplace conflict and trauma-informed stress, talks on the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ pride and Black Lives Matter, and non-facilitated online workshops. The firm has not yet pursued facilitated trainings.

Social equity efforts are supported, importantly, by a dedicated budget. “I would say there has been a shift,” Harari said. “Leadership has gotten more diverse at the very top in the last two years,” so now there is a question of “how do we cascade that down across all levels too? We are changing some of that vibe already.”

Finding workshops that work

“I actually don’t use the language of ‘implicit bias’ or ‘anti-bias’ training,” says Michael Hulshof-Schmidt, executive director of EqualityWorks, NW, which offers trainings on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Although implicit bias comes up throughout the workshops that he facilitates, that’s not the primary focus. Instead, it’s about group dynamics.

“I try to help communities create a culture of intent and impact, and create a culture of repair work,” Hulshof-Schmidt told BuildingGreen. That means, first, understanding that our intent and our impact don’t always align: we cause harm without meaning to. Second, it means learning to address the harm rather than our intentions and to have productive conversations—and take productive actions—that help repair the damage.

Note that Hulshof-Schmidt says “community” rather than “firm.”

“I hate the word ‘firm,’” he said. “It detaches us from humanity. It says the firm is what’s important, not the human beings present, not the people working there who have to be in relationship with one another. … How do they feel supported and seen and heard?”

Tools for success

Because of this focus, some of the initial work might not seem like “equity” training at all.

Opsis Architecture first employed Hulshof-Schmidt’s services in 2017, after discovering through its Just label process how inequitable the firm was, especially in terms of gender ratios. “The results were really great,” said Heather DeGrella, AIA, associate principal. “We continue to use it today.” And that may be key to ensuring training actually has an impact—creating tools that get used by everyone in the organization and thus gradually change the culture.

One such tool, said DeGrella, is a community agreement about communication. “We refer to them at meetings and share them with clients,” she said. The rules include things like “assume good intent,” “believe others’ narratives,” “be fully present,” and “be an ally.” The agreement is posted in conference rooms, and there is even a follow-up survey after each meeting so that people can report anonymously on how well they think the participants followed the agreed-upon rules.

Another thing that came out of Opsis’s work with Hulshof-Schmidt was re-configuration of seating at monthly all-office meetings. “We’d always had them in a room with a big conference table in the middle, and leadership tended to sit at the table. Other people hung back on the fringes,” DeGrella shared. After the first training, though, they started rolling the big table out of the room and sitting in a big circle instead. “It was eye-opening for a lot of people,” she added.

Now that the firm has spent a few years on building an equitable community, teams are starting to take it outside the office and into projects. One group did a workshop on design justice, looking at a case study of what could have gone better with a certain project. And that part of the puzzle is a big reason leadership has pushed forward with equity education: “There was recognition that … the only way to have the best solutions is to have everyone’s voices. I believe our office really does believe that. That’s why they invested in this.” She continued, “We’d like to get to a place where design solutions really are community led, where the architect is not seen as the expert in the equation.”

Bora Architects also worked with EqualityWorks and has now published a commitment on racial equity and looking for “ways that we can actively participate in eliminating racism,” said Amy Running, IIDA. In addition, “we really as a firm started to look very closely at where our money was going. Not just philanthropic funds but also … consultants, banks, institutions, supporting a much more diverse makeup of our community.”

Some of the results of Bora’s equity work have been deep and far-reaching. “For us it was so good that it happened before we transitioned to working from home. It made us more culturally aware of issues that people were having as we transitioned. It would have been a bigger cultural struggle for us” without prior training, community agreements, and commitments. “It has also given us awareness to elevate some other voices in our office, specifically the African-American individual who called some of us out a little bit when some of the violence was happening before George Floyd’s death. That propelled us to our bigger ending-systemic-racism goal. Without that training we would not be where we’re at today.”

Realistic expectations

Running said Bora has not pursued implicit bias training specifically. “We realized that there was still some fundamental groundwork we needed to do around equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she said. “And we are finding various opinions about implicit bias training.”

But don’t expect that community work to be easy or have instant positive effects, warned DeGrella. Opsis’s first two workshops with EqualityWorks happened nine months apart. “Things get tough as you start to test the waters and speak up more,” she said. It’s especially difficult to speak truth to power, she added, as most of the dominant voices in the firm tend to come from leadership.”

“This is a lot of discomfort to endure, a lot of tension to hold,” affirmed Hulshof-Schmidt.

Especially if you are going it alone. CallisonRTKL is still evaluating options for facilitated trainings, but in the meantime, Harari is pleased with the progress made so far. “We can’t wait till we have the perfect communicator, the perfect workshop. We just need to talk … and be okay with a lack of closure.”

reprinted from BuildingGreen

%d bloggers like this: