Who’s Still Biased?

Drake Bennett, Boston Globe, March 7, 2010

If you work at a large company, and especially if you manage other people, chances are you’ve gone through diversity training. The vast majority of the Fortune 500 and, by some estimates, the majority of American employers offer diversity training programs for their employees. Many make such training mandatory. The amount of money spent on it in the United States runs into the billions.

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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.

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Critics, on the other hand, argue that today’s practitioners are unlikely to be converging on a set of best practices, since the field is characterized by divergent, even contradictory approaches to the same set of problems. To critics, the proponents are simply mistaking the fact that people feel better about themselves after training for real results. Just because people think they’re less prejudiced doesn’t mean they are. Indeed, with something as subtle and reflexive as bias, we’re often our own worst judges.

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The current popularity of diversity training, however, dates to the 1980s. The social revolutions of the 1960s had brought more minorities and women into the workplace, but their integration was halting, leading to widespread problems: Women and minorities were hired and promoted far less frequently than white males, and paid less for the same work. Many complained of social exclusion, habitual slights, or open hostility from colleagues. These complaints spilled into the public eye as workers began to sue their employers for discrimination and harassment.

Managers, faced with predictions of even greater demographic changes in the workplace in coming decades, turned to diversity courses as a way to respond. Some firms adopted the programs to preemptively head off discord and make themselves more appealing to minority applicants and customers. Others, like Texaco and Coca-Cola, were compelled to implement them under the settlement terms of discrimination lawsuits. A whole “diversity management” industry arose to meet–and encourage–the need, and large companies began creating diversity task forces and hiring chief diversity officers.

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Several years ago Kalev, along with Dobbin and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota, set out to see what works. {snip}

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.

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Elizabeth Levy Paluck has taken perhaps the broadest look at the literature. In studies she did alone and with Yale’s Green, she looked at 985 published and unpublished reports on prejudice reduction programs, by academics and nonacademics.

Among those studies, Paluck found that the ones on diversity training were among the least rigorous: They often comprised little more than asking participants to fill out surveys on their own attitudes. Several compared the attitudes of training participants to a “control” group of co-workers who had opted not to attend the training, but without actually controlling for the possibility that someone who would choose to take the course would do so because they already had different attitudes than someone who would choose not to. It is possible that diversity training works, Paluck concludes, it’s just that none of the research that says it does is reliable.

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