Diversity trainings are a sham, Harvard study claims

Administrators across the country are folding to student demands for more diversity, but a recent study out of Harvard suggests that mandatory diversity trainings are actually making schools less diverse, not more.

A survey in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review based on over three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. businesses shows that most diversity programs aren’t actually increasing diversity. In fact, the data suggest that diversity programs like the ones seen all over America’s campuses are having exactly the opposite effect.

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The study’s authors, sociology professors Frank Dobbin of Harvard and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University, tracked the effect of diversity trainings on the actual growth of minority populations in businesses over a five-year period, but found that “after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management, and the share of black women actually decreased by 9 percent, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4 percent to 5 percent.”

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The reason, the Review argues, is that managers, business executives, and employees in general are less likely to agree with a position if it is presented to them under mandatory circumstances. Indeed, the Review is not alone in its thinking, citing three other studies supporting the claim that compulsory diversity trainings are met with “resistance and anger” and that “many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterwards.”

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“Laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out,” the study explains. “As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”

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Further, the Review argues that the positive effects of a diversity training session are transitory, rarely lasting “beyond a day or two,” while “a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.”

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In many cases, diversity trainings are administered using “negative messages,” with instructors often emphasizing the legal consequences of discrimination and telling horror stories of crushing settlements, but the Review contends that “threats, or ‘negative incentives,’ don’t win converts.”

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Likewise, many grievance procedures, such as bias reporting systems, have similar adverse effects and do little to actually prevent racial bias and discrimination. The Review finds that in many cases, formal discrimination reports are responded to with retaliation, suggesting that the more effective solution would be to enforce a more personal and organic procedure, rather than a bureaucratic one.

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“Among the nearly 90,000 discrimination complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2015, 45 percent included a charge of retaliation—which suggests that the original report was met with ridicule, demotion, or worse,” the study confirms.

As a consequence, the Review found that formal grievance procedures actually reduced the percentage of minority employees at an institution over a five-year period.

“Things don’t get better when firms put in formal grievance systems; they get worse,” the article states. “Our quantitative analyses show that the managerial ranks of white women and all minority groups except Hispanic men decline—by 3 percent to 11 percent—in the five years after companies adopt them.”

Nonetheless, countless prestigious colleges and universities have adopted similar bias incident reporting systems and mandatory diversity trainings at the demand of students. In one recent example, the University of Wisconsin, Madison rolled out a $200,000 diversity training that will be required for all incoming students.

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Similarly, many schools are introducing Bias Response Teams tasked with addressing complaints from any student who alleges an instance of bias. The open-ended and indiscriminate system, however, seems to have resulted in an abuse of the process, with many students logging absurd incidents, including one individual who complained that “a student used the phrase ‘on the other hand.’”

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The Review concludes that while there are effective means available to promote real diversity of thought and race, most of the strategies currently in place have proven ineffective.

“Strategies for controlling bias—which drive most diversity efforts—have failed spectacularly since they were introduced to promote equal opportunity,” the authors assert, pointing out that “black men have barely gained ground in corporate management since 1985,” while white women haven’t progressed since 2000.

“It isn’t that there aren’t enough educated women and minorities out there—both groups have made huge educational gains over the past two generations. The problem is that we can’t motivate people by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t,” they explain. “The numbers sum it up. Your organization will become less diverse, not more, if you require managers to go to diversity training, try to regulate their hiring and promotion decisions, and put in a legalistic grievance system.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski