March 19, 2010


Who's still biased?: Diversity training has swept corporate America. Just one problem: It doesn’t seem to work. (Drake Bennett, March 7, 2010, Boston Globe)

Now a few social scientists are taking a hard look at these programs, and, so far, what they’re finding is that there’s little evidence that diversity training works. A paper published last year by the psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University’s

Woodrow Wilson School and the Yale University political scientist Donald Green comprehensively surveyed the literature on prejudice reduction measures and found no empirical support for the idea that diversity training programs change attitudes or behavior. Similarly, a 2008 literature review paper by Carol Kulik of the University of South Australia and Loriann Roberson of Columbia University found that, on the question of changing behavior, there were few trustworthy studies - and decidedly mixed results among those. And research by a team of sociologists on more than 800 companies over three decades has found that the best diversity training programs make little difference in who gets hired and promoted, and many programs actually decrease the number of women and minorities in management.

“Even with best practices, you’re not going to get much of an effect,” says Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University sociology professor on the research team. “It doesn’t change what happens at work.” [...]

Several years ago Kalev, along with Dobbin and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota, set out to see what works. As a measure of program success, they looked at the number of women and minorities in a company’s managerial ranks - a much more concrete metric than the surveys of employee attitudes that many other studies relied on. The researchers drew on 31 years of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, specifically the annual reports that companies file detailing their racial and gender makeup. The sociologists then surveyed 829 of those companies on what diversity programs they had and when they instituted them. The results were described in a 2006 study, and in another paper that Kalev and Dobbin are currently writing.

The researchers found that while diversity training was by far the most popular approach, it was also the least effective at getting companies to hire and promote women and minorities. Some training programs were more effective than others: Voluntary programs were better than mandatory ones, and those that focused on the threat of bias and harassment lawsuits were worse than those that did not. But even the better programs led only to marginal changes. And those that were mandatory or discussed lawsuits - the vast majority of the programs the researchers examined - slightly reduced the number of women and minorities in management. Required training and legalistic training both make people resentful, the authors suggest, and likely to rebel against what they’ve heard.

What worked much better than even the best training, the researchers found, were more structural measures: minority mentoring programs, or designating an executive or a task force with specific responsibility to change promotion practices.

“You can imagine, if you’re in a meeting for two hours once a year to refresh your diversity awareness, what’s the effect of that going to be compared to being a mentor to someone?” says Dobbin.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 19, 2010 1:01 PM
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