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Can the Marine Corps Stop Bias Before It Starts?

Marines will receive mandatory training to combat unconscious bias as more women join their ranks. But will it work?
U.S. Marines run to board an HC-46 Sea Knight helicopter during training exercises at Camp Pendleton, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

U.S. Marines run to board an HC-46 Sea Knight helicopter during training exercises at Camp Pendleton, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Last year, the Marine Corps lost a bid to keep certain jobs closed to women. Since then, the Corps has embraced its impending influx of lady grunts, announcing last week that all Marines would receive mandatory training to combat unconscious biases. reports:

Mobile training teams will be dispatched to installations across the Corps throughout May and June to offer a two-day seminar to majors and lieutenant colonels, Col. Anne Weinberg, deputy director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office, told reporters Thursday. Those officers will then train the Marines under them.

Topics include unconscious bias, which focuses on how people prejudge others based on factors such as race and gender, and principles of institutional change. The seminar will also walk officers through the elements of the Corps' plan for opening ground combat jobs to women and include vignettes featuring challenges units might encounter.

It's admirable that the Corps is taking preemptive steps to ensure a smooth transition into a gender equal military. But will the training work? It seems the jury is still out, according to the research.

Biases are the unconscious drivers of our perceptions and decisions. They are, technically speaking, adaptive—the mental shortcuts that evolved to help us make decisions quickly, without wasting precious cognitive resources. Sometimes the mere awareness of these biases is enough to reverse them, but they are invisible to us by design, and are thus exceptionally difficult to overcome. "[P]eople are notoriously bad at knowing that their thoughts, beliefs, interactions, judgments, and decisions are affected by unconscious drivers," University of California–Los Angeles Psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues wrote in NeuroLeadership Journal in 2014.

A review of nearly 1,000 studies on prejudice training found little evidence that such training reduces biases or changes behavior. In fact, diversity training can backfire, reinforcing stereotypes rather than breaking them down. "Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity," sociologist Alexandra Kalev told the Washington Post in 2008. Kalev's research found that, after mandatory diversity training at mid-size and large American companies, the number of white women in management positions fell by seven percent, the number of black women in similar roles fell by nearly 12 percent, and the number of Asian men and women in such roles both fell by more than 10 percent.

But there is some good news for the Marine Corps: At least one study shows that changing how we define our in-groups may help combat biases. Biases are driven in part by our fear of outsiders, but bonding over commonalities, Tom Jacobs reported in January for Pacific Standard, could turn outsiders into group members. The culture of the Marine Corps, and the military in general, already promotes the creation of deep bonds among members, which might help moderate any biases male officers and soldiers hold against their future female colleagues.