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Speaker Spotlight: Dr Pragya Agarwal

Meet the researchers behind the Cambridge Festival: behavioural and data scientist, author, speaker and a consultant, Dr Pragya Agarwal

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, author, speaker and a consultant. Her books include  SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias and Wish we knew what to say: Talking with children about race. She will be speaking on the panel discussion Black Lives Matter: has anything really changed? on 31st March 6-7pm. Other speakers are Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham University; Dr Ali Meghji, Lecturer in Social Inequalities at the University of Cambridge and author of Decolonising sociology: an introduction; and Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. The event will be chaired by Dr Kamal Munir from Judge Business School.


What do you think about the recent criticism of unconscious bias training in the workplace? 

I have said this many times that we cannot train people out of unconscious biases through a 20-minute or one-hour online test. I have also written a longer, more exhaustive article looking at the limitations in the tools and methods used for unconscious bias training for New Scientist and I also write about it in my book SWAY. These tools can make us aware of the associations we make unconsciously in our brains, but that is really only the first step. We need to do this work of unlearning some of our harmful biases consistently and regularly. It is also crucial we acknowledge and understand that, even though these tools do not work in addressing or eradicating unconscious bias that some people were hoping could be used as a quick-fix method, that is not to say that we all do not carry biases and stereotypes. It is important that we separate the two and start thinking about how our individual and interpersonal biases (both intentional and unintentional) can affect workplace culture and how these feed back into systemic and structural inequalities, reinforcing hierarchies and discriminatory practices. 

When should we start to talk to children about race and bias generally?

This work has to start from a very young age. As I discuss in my book Wish We Knew What To Say: Talking with children about race, children start forming notions of hierarchies and pick up implicit cues from their parents and carers from as young as three years old. This means that we need to make sure we are disrupting any ideas of whiteness being the norm by bringing in diverse books and media into their lives. Children also understand the notion of fairness and inequality from a young age and we also have to discuss ideas around privilege with them so that they understand how they can leverage their privilege and be good allies as they grow older. It is important we do this no matter what our racial identity or ethnicity, because in doing so, we also raise children who are secure in their own racial identities. I have just written a pre-school book, Let's talk about racism, for under four year olds that will be published by Hachette in August 2021. 

How can schools address everyday racism best?

Schools have to be actively anti-racist. They need to have this embedded in their values and ethos and they need to implement clear guidance around racial bullying of any sort. The ideas around racial justice can also be implemented in the books that are chosen, the words and images that are selected for children to work with and in lesson plans from a young age. Schools also have to understand (and convey to students) that racism also occurs through microaggressions and it is important that there is an acknowledgement of any such microaggressive incidents, and that there is an adequate response to it in a collaborative manner rather than brushing them away or ignoring them, which is easier to do. This can only happen if racial education is part of the curriculum and children have a shared understanding of how racism can work in many different ways. 

What is your next book about?

My next book, (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, is out on 3 June with Canongate. It is part memoir and part examination of the broader societal, historical and scientific factors that drive how we think and talk about motherhood. In this book, I look at how women's bodies have been monitored and controlled through history and how this shapes the political constructs of moth