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UPenn Students Study 'Denial and Unconscious Bias' in Summer Course

Students at the University of Pennsylvania will learn to confront their “denial and unconscious bias” surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and other minority statuses during a new course offered this summer.

The class, “Diversity and Inclusion: Strategies to Confront Bias and Enhance Collaboration in 21st Century Organizations,” will be co-taught by Dr. Aviva Legatt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey Floyd, an organizational psychologist who works in leadership development.

“In the workplace, it is inevitable that difference between individuals will cause conflict—whether explicit or beneath the surface,” the course description says. “Denial and unconscious bias will prevent issues from being addressed.”

While decades of pop-psychology has argued that unconscious bias is a major influence on how white people treat black people, or how heterosexual people treat the gay community, new research has actually found scarce evidence to prove this link.

Gregory Mitchell, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, reviewed the most current research on the issue earlier this year and concluded:

Seventeen years after introduction of the [test that measures unconscious bias], only a handful of studies have examined the influence of implicit bias on real personnel decisions, and those studies have provided inconsistent and at best weak evidence that implicit bias has any impact on employment decisions.

So, why is this Ivy League class predicated on an outdated theory that has been criticized by numerous researchers in the last few years? Good question.

Nevertheless, eager students will learn to fight their “denial and unconscious bias” through a number of tactics in the class, including through writing personal reflections about their own biases and talking to their classmates about them.

While Professor Legatt declined to share a copy of the syllabus with PJ Media, she previously co-taught an online course dedicated to “Optimizing Diversity on Teams,” which taught business leaders “specific strategies to get buy-in for their diversity initiatives” and how to fight the “biases that can harm these efforts.”

During the course, Legatt identified a variety of ways that “hidden bias” can creep up in the workplace, such as “offering to help women when the help is not asked for” and giving women easier, “less-challenging,” work assignments.

Legatt also claimed that employees perpetuate “hidden bias” around issues like gender, race, and sexuality “all the time,” and thus, it’s important to address because it has consequences for employee retention and burnout.

Still no peer-reviewed, replicated research proving this link, though.

The UPenn summer course seems to be at least roughly modeled off that course, and interested students can take it for a small fee of only about $4,000.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen