Diversity Researchers See Little Improvement

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

June 1 — Several years after authoring a widely cited study about problems with employers' well-meant diversity training, two researchers say little seems to have changed.

In a 2007 article in Contexts, a journal published by the American Sociological Association, Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev and Erin Kelly wrote that their research showed “that certain programs do increase diversity in management jobs—the best test of whether a program works—but that others do little or nothing.”

In sum, they wrote: “The good news is that companies that give diversity councils, or diversity managers, responsibility for getting more women and minorities into good jobs typically see significant increases in the diversity of managers. So do companies that create formal mentoring programs. Much less effective are diversity training sessions, diversity performance evaluations for managers, and affinity groups for women and minorities.”

During the economic downturn several years ago, “a lot of companies downsized their diversity efforts,” Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, told Bloomberg BNA in a May 31 e-mail. “Thus there was little change to training, except that more companies appear to have switched to on-line, off-the-shelf, training modules.”

However, he added, “there has since been a renewal of training efforts, mostly driven by psychological research on subconscious bias.”

More recent research “suggests that diversity training that emphasizes that ‘all our brains are biased' needs to also emphasize strategies for counteracting that bias,” Kelly, a professor of work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, told Bloomberg BNA in a May 31 e-mail. “Those strategies would preferably change the decision-making system or build checks into everyday practices, rather than leaving the work of counteracting bias up to individual decision-makers.”

She added that her team has not carried out additional surveys on the subject in recent years, and said the relevant recent research has been done by Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia.

Counterproductive Diversity Training?

Kelly also cited Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington and Brenda Major of the University of California Santa Barbara, whose Jan. 4 Harvard Business Review article with Tessa L. Dover, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, says it all in its title: “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men.”

Dobbin concurs with this viewpoint. “We find that the conventional approaches to training tend to have negative consequences. Firms favor mandatory training specifically for managers,” he said. In a March 2015 paper he co-authored with Kalev, of Tel Aviv University, he said, “we find that such training tends to have negative consequences.”

However, Dobbin said, an article his team authored in 2006 shows that “we do see that training can make other diversity initiatives slightly more effective.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com