Opinion: Utah has slipped away from its founding principles of inclusion and respect

I help Utahns overcome unconscious bias to become better leaders, students, colleagues and parents. Why would the Utah Legislature try to stop that?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deanne Coles joins a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

As a professor who has read and studied the literature on unconscious/implicit bias for more than 12 years now, imagine my confusion and dismay when our Utah Legislature voted to ban training on this topic in higher education settings (see HB261).

I’ve facilitated workshops well over 100 times and don’t remember anyone ever walking out being offended. These engaging sessions are not geared towards shaming people, but helping attendees become less judgmental and more self-aware. In fact, deeply exploring my own biases has helped me become a better employee, community member and mother and grandmother. As a Christian, understanding my own biases has helped me become more Christlike. For anyone, understanding our own unconscious biases can help us become better human beings.

Nearly 2,000 studies have now been conducted on unconscious bias and the results are conclusive: We all have it, and most of what we think and do is in the “unconscious” domain.

Why wouldn’t we then want to better understand our biases? We make decisions all day every day that we are not aware of because they are automatic and based on feelings rather than our rational minds. When we drive a car for even 10 to 15 minutes, we make hundreds and maybe thousands of decisions and don’t remember most of them. They are just part of what we do and who we are. These decisions are based on our upbringings, life experiences, filters and habits, with each of us being very different. The more we understand about ourselves and how our brain works — including our biases — the better decisions we can make in life. This, in turn, helps us become more understanding and kind. This is what implicit bias training should be all about.

There is nothing scary about well-designed unconscious bias training. In fact, I have done many 3-hour workshops for departments at Brigham Young University, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nonprofits, community organizations, businesses and church groups in Utah and in other states and countries. There is no shame and blame, and people continuously thank me for helping them become better people.

I acknowledge, however, that all unconscious bias training is not equal. In fact, according to mountains of research I’ve read over the years, it is possible that only 20% to 25% of the training offered is helping people become less judgmental and more aware of their own biases. But scholars and well-informed practitioners agree with a Harvard Business Review article published some years ago titled “Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training — Make It Better.”

Unconscious bias workshops should not only be focused on things like race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and age (although very important), but they should also help us be aware of other judgments we make and how they impact our decisions. We judge all day every day.

Don’t tell me we don’t judge when we hear that a colleague is a University of Utah versus a Brigham Young University football fan, when we notice someone is drinking coffee versus hot chocolate, when women wear pants to a Latter-day Saint Sunday service, or when our neighbors don’t keep their lawn regularly mowed!

When I used to teach an inclusive leadership class in the Executive MBA program at Utah State University, I included my three-hour unconscious bias workshop the first evening each term. It never failed that, when I asked my students at the end of the course what the most important content they received was, many cited the implicit bias content. In fact, most of the students told me they had become better parents because of what they learned.

So, I ask the Utah State Legislature, are you really going to ban my unconscious bias training on campuses and in government organizations?

Utah leaders continuously brag about Utah being such a great place to live, but I must be clear: It is a wonderful place for some, but it is not for everyone. Unfortunately, the recent legislation is not based on the latest research but on fear, opinion and the desire to hold firm to the status quo.

When Brigham Young arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, and looked over the Salt Lake Valley, I believe he envisioned Utah as a place of refuge, a place of inclusion, a place of learning and a place of respect. We have slipped. We must ensure that our public policies align with the principles on which Utah was founded. Banning unconscious bias training is not the way. We must do better in Utah to lift everyone, not just those who have already benefited for decades.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.

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