- Unconscious bias on the basis of sexual orientation and race have dropped dramatically in the U.S. over the past 10 years, but implicit bias towards people based on body weight has actually risen, according to a Harvard study. Researchers examined more than four million online tests for implicit bias taken from 2007 to the end of 2016, measuring for changes in attitudes toward six social groups: race, skin tone, sexual orientation, age, disability and body weight. The study also showed that implicit bias, once thought to be unchangeable, can change over time and toward groups of people.
- Attitudes about sexual orientation changed the fastest and across all demographic groups, the study's lead author told WBUR, moving by about 33% over the past decade toward neutrality. Viewpoints on race and skin tone have also changed, but at a slower rate with about 17% for race and 15% for skin tone.
- Bias based on body weight is the only attitude out of the six that showed as becoming more biased over time. From about 2004 to 2010, body weight bias actually increased by 40%, WBUR reported.
Research has shown that in the workplace, obese employees are stereotyped as "lazy, unmotivated, unintelligent, sloppy and lacking willpower," CNN Business has reported. The higher their body mass index, the more likely an employee is to face this kind of stigma. But, unconscious bias is costly, with various studies showing that inclusive businesses are more successful than their homogenous counterparts.
Some employers are taking steps to address implicit biases. Starbucks shuttered more than 8,000 U.S. stores and its corporate office for several hours in 2018 to conduct racial-bias training for its employees in aftermath of the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store. Research suggests unconscious bias training can be successful; when learners understand that everyone has biases, they may be more willing to examine their own. But if the training comes from a "let's weed out the bad apples" approach, then such training could backfire, as Google discovered last year with the James Damore backlash.
A welcoming and diverse workplace presents several benefits for employers: better brand perception, improved talent acquisition and a boost for both employee retention and profits. But even the best unconscious bias training program available can only take you so far. For companies to take real steps toward reducing bias in the workplace, training must be accompanied by good policies and procedures. And those have to be part of a workplace culture based on respect and inclusion.