BBC: Research suggests diversity training doesn't work, so why do companies keep doing it?

The BBC published an interesting article today which points out that, despite its ubiquity among major companies, diversity training doesn’t really work. At least that’s what a lot of the research on the subject suggests. But if so, why are so many companies committed to going through the motions?

The article opens by pointing to a summary of research on the topic published in 2018 by Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin and Tel Aviv University sociologist Alexandra Kalev:

We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade, with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around. But they persist, worried about the optics of getting rid of training, concerned about litigation, unwilling to take more difficult but consequential steps or simply in the thrall of glossy training materials and their purveyors. That colleges and universities in the United States persist in offering training to faculty and students, and even mandate it (29% of all schools require faculty to undergo training), is particularly surprising given that the research on the poor performance of training comes out of academia. Imagine university health centers continuing to prescribe vitamin C for the common cold…

By 2005, 65 percent of large firms offered diversity training. Consultants have heralded training as essential for increasing diversity, corporate counsel have advised that it is vital for fending of lawsuits and plaintiffs have asked for it in most discrimination settlements.

Yet two-thirds of human resources specialists report that diversity training does not have positive effects, and several field studies have found no effect of diversity training on women’s or minorities’ careers or on managerial diversity. These findings are not surprising. There is ample evidence that training alone does not change attitudes or behavior, or not by much and not for long.

Here’s more from the BBC:

 In 2019, researchers examined various strategies to reduce implicit prejudice. They concluded that the kind of training which institutions tend to favour the most, such as “short, one-shot sessions that can be completed and the requisite diversity boxes ticked”, are unlikely to make a difference in the habits or long-term behaviour of participants.

Even larger efforts to reduce implicit bias formed over a lifetime show any positive effects tend to wear off after a few hours or days. Some researchers even suggest that asking people to fight stereotypes through training can make those stereotypes more prevalent in a person’s mind

Additionally, when employees feel like they’re being controlled, says Dobbin, organisational studies show they tend to react negatively. So, when diversity training is designated as mandatory – which Dobbin’s research found was the case at 80% of corporations in the US – employees can perceive these sessions as much less palatable than if they were voluntary.

We’re describing a massive institutional effort which arguably produces very little or nothing. But so long as companies see legal benefits to holding the sessions, they’ll continue to do so. And as long as there is money to be made filling that corporate need, there will by companies jockeying to collect those dollars:

DEI practitioners share a worldview — that workplaces can become more humane and just — but they are also rivals in a for-profit industry of their own making, with the same incentives of salespeople and marketers everywhere. Corporate America spends roughly $8 billion annually on diversity, according to a figure that gets passed around routinely — though that rough estimate was first cited in 2003, which means the true profitability of the market is uncharted.

Certainly, after Floyd’s murder, the business became astronomically larger than ever. But instead of an industry finally coming into focus, thanks to unprecedented funding and momentum, what composes DEI feels even more dizzyingly diffuse, and its true beneficiaries remain in question. “It really is the Wild West,” Lily Zheng, a consultant in San Francisco who has amassed more than 23,000 followers on LinkedIn, tells me. “One of the major challenges of DEI is there’s no quality control. Anyone can call themselves a DEI practitioner. When your clients are these companies that are desperate to do anything and don’t quite understand how this works, ineffective DEI work can be lucrative. And we’re seeing cynicism pop up as a result, that DEI is just a shitty way in which companies burn money. And I’m like, Yeah, it can be.”

The show must go on. It may not be accomplishing much for most of the people forced to participate, but it’s certainly benefitting some of the trainers booking corporate training sessions and selling books.