Mahzarin Banaji and Frank Dobbin, Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2023
At least 30 states are considering legislation to defund DEI initiatives in public universities and state agencies. At the same time, conservative activists, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action in college admissions, are suing companies to stop DEI initiatives. These challenges come on the heels of the growth of corporate DEI programs after the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.
Meanwhile, advocates for DEI—which stands for diversity, equity and inclusion—have bemoaned the fact that after decades of diversity training, many university faculties, state agencies and corporations have made little progress on diversifying the workforce.
Are the right and the left on the same page here—is diversity training a hopeless cause?
We are a psychologist and a sociologist who have been studying bias and organizational diversity programs, respectively, for decades. The research makes it clear that Americans desperately need education about bias, because even people who value fairness and equality hold biases—without being aware of it. They need to understand that bias operates systemically and must be addressed at the individual, institutional and societal levels.
Education offered on these matters is very much in the national spirit. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in “Democracy in America” in 1835: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
But, as Dobbin and Kalev have shown, the typical DEI training doesn’t educate people about bias and may even do harm.
Most training programs fall short on two fronts. First, they use implicit-bias education to shame trainees for holding stereotypes. Trainers play gotcha, sending trainees to take an online test co-developed by one of us, Mahzarin Banaji, for education and research. Instead of training people about research that finds that bias is pervasive, trainers use the test to prove to trainees that they are morally flawed. People leave feeling guilty for holding biases that conflict with American values.
“Gotcha” isn’t going to win people over. The approach is disrespectful, and misses the main takeaway from implicit bias research: Everyone holds biases they don’t control as a consequence of a lifetime of exposure to societal inequality, the media and the arts. Trainers should introduce these ideas with humility, for trainers themselves can’t help but hold these very biases. They could easily educate themselves about the implicit bias research with resources at outsmartingimplicitbias.org.
The second problem with most trainings is that they seek to solve the problem of bias by invoking the law to scare people about the risk of letting bias go unchecked. Trainers recount stories of big companies brought to their heels by discrimination suits. They detail rigid do’s and don’ts for hiring, disciplining and firing people. They require trainees to pass tests on what the law forbids. All of this makes it clear that the CEO approved the training solely to avoid litigation. Trainees leave scared that they will be punished for a simple mistake that may land their company in court.
Trainings with this one-two punch—you are biased and the law will get you—backfire. The research shows that this kind of training leads to reductions in women and people of color in management.
Why would diversity training actually make things worse? Making people feel ashamed can lead them to reject the message. Thus people often leave diversity training feeling angry and with greater animosity toward other groups (“There’s no way I’m biased!”). And threats of punishment, by the law in this case, typically lead to psychological “reactance” whereby people reject the desired behavior (“Nobody’s telling me what I can’t say!”). This kind of training can turn off even supporters of equal-opportunity programs.