Most diversity training efforts at US companies are at best ineffective and often even counterproductive in increasing the number of women and minorities in managerial positions. Decades of conventional wisdom have been shown to be horribly flawed and erroneous by a recent study of the long-term effects of diversity training in the American workplace.
An in-depth recent American Sociological Review study performed by by Alexandra Kalev of UC Berkeley, Frank Dobbin of Harvard, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota reviewed 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. and found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by:
- A 7.5% drop in the overall number of women in management.
- A 10% drop in the number of Black, female managers
- A 12% drop in the number of Black men in top positions.
- Similar drops in management were seen for Latinos and Asians.
The sociologists’ study shows that organizational responsibility and accountability make a difference; diversity training and evaluation don’t. It begs the question – why didn’t the EEOC examine these issues years ago?
Kalev’s, Dobbin’s’ and Kelly’s analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Specifically, it showed that mandatory programs – most often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits – were the problem. In those cases where diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company’s business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.
When attendance is voluntary, diversity training is followed by an increase in managerial diversity. Most employers, however, force their managers and workers to go through training, and this is the least effective option in terms of increasing diversity. . . . Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity.
— Alexandra Kalev
Today, U.S. companies spend $200 – $300 million per year on diversity training, but the new study is one of the first systematic analysis of their efficacy. What the study found is that programs work best when they are voluntary and focus on specific organizational skills, such as establishing mentoring relationships and giving women and minorities a chance to prove their worth in high-profile roles.
Many diversity trainers and corporate executives expressed little or no surprise at the study’s findings. Kalev believes this means that many companies are not just pursuing poor policies, but are doing so even though their own experts know the training is ineffective or counterproductive. There seems to be two possible reasons why US firms would continue to spend 100’s of millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work:
- The first is the possibility that businesses are responding to the current legal environment in the US; several Supreme Court rulings have held that companies with mandatory diversity training are in a stronger position if they face a discrimination lawsuit.
- The second possibility is that many companies – with the cooperation of diversity trainers – find it easier to offer exercises that serve public relations goals, rather than to address any existent issues.
American companies have wasted over three decades and billions of dollars on programs that do not work in an effort to protect themselves in court and meet the “social obligation” placed upon them in the post MLK, post Friedan years. That’s a lot of time and money flushed away without much to show for it.
Is it possible – reasonably even – to theorize that US companies willingness to do the minimum needed to protect themselves from lawsuits and further their public image, as opposed addressing the underlying issues, is a result of the same sort of backlash and foot dragging shown by individuals in Kalev’s study? Did the government’s and society’s requirement for diversity in corporate management actually make that goal less obtainable?