In late September, Donald Trump ordered federal agencies and companies and universities with federal contracts to stop offering diversity training that addresses systemic racism and sexism. The Wall Street Journal reports that businesses are protesting President Trump’s order, arguing that it attacks free speech and undermines workplace equity. Whether it tramples on free speech rights is a question for lawyers and voters. But whether it undermines workplace equity is a question we can answer.
As social scientists we know one thing: Diversity training has borne too much of the burden of addressing inequality at work. It has become the go-to solution for all inequities. Starbucks gets hit with negative publicity, and they order firm-wide diversity training. Sephora faces uncomfortable public revelations, ditto. Ford loses a race-and-sexual-harassment lawsuit and agrees to do more diversity training. BMW loses a race-discrimination suit and institutes more training.
Trump’s directive has led corporations and universities to worry about the legality of their diversity training and seek counsel. It has also led the Department of Justice to suspend diversity training. But is diversity training even worth fighting for?
Not to the degree you might expect. We have analyzed data from hundreds of employers, across dozens of years, to assess how different equity measures work. And what we’ve found is that the typical diversity training program doesn’t just fail to promote diversity, it actually leads to declines in management diversity. Other simple managerial measures have proven to be more effective at opening opportunities up to people of color.
Anti-bias training has a long history. Social scientists were experimenting with different approaches by the 1940s. After John F. Kennedy ordered federal contractors to take “affirmative action” to stop discrimination in 1961, big contractors created anti-bias training programs. Federal agencies got on the bandwagon in the late 1960s, when Elliot Richardson, as Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary, put 3,000 of his managers through training, justifying the move with words often echoed today: “Prejudice with respect to minorities is often a result of unconscious views.” In words echoed by Trump, Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina) disparaged it as brainwashing.
Training has taken different forms over time, but they’ve all been disappointing. The research is clear and consistent. You can’t significantly affect bias in training that lasts an hour, a day, or a week. Biases are rooted in stereotypes, and stereotypes are ingrained over a lifetime of listening to the radio, watching TV, and scrolling through social media. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated this. The best anti-bias trainings reduce measured bias slightly. But the effect doesn’t stick. Nor does it translate into organizational change.
Some studies find that anti-bias training can actually activate biases. Telling people to stop thinking about stereotypes is like telling them to stop thinking about elephants. Worse, training can spark backlash. Our research shows that the typical diversity-training program does not lead to increases in workforce diversity — not in a month, not in a decade. If employers want to open opportunity to people of color, anti-bias training won’t do it. They have to make practical systemic changes — which are less onerous than you might think.
Systemic racism often hides behind neutral, seemingly color-blind management routines. Addressing systemic racism means recruiting at historically Black colleges, not just majority-white colleges. It means creating formal programs to ensure that every employee is offered a mentor, rather than supporting “natural” mentoring relationships, which typically leave people of color out in the cold. It means inviting all employees to sign up for skill and management training rather than letting bosses hand-pick their favorite workers. It means getting line managers involved in looking deeply at the problem of equity, brainstorming for solutions, and putting those solutions into action, rather than leaving the problem to outside consultants who have no authority to change things.
Our research suggests that a small number of systemic changes — targeted recruitment, mentoring programs, open skill and management training, and diversity task forces — can lead to significant and persistent increases in workforce diversity and opportunity. This is true for both frontline and managerial jobs. As a means of promoting equity, diversity training is still worth fighting for — but, as our research makes clear, only when coupled with these systemic changes. It’s time to put them into place in every workplace.
by Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin
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