So diversity training doesn’t have a great track record of boosting Black employees into the executive suite. “I would advise companies to spend the money on something else,” says sociologist Frank Dobbin of Harvard University, who worked on the 2007 and 2016 studies. As an alternative to diversity training, he suggests companies try special recruitment programs, such as soliciting new hires from historically black colleges and universities. “The effects are lasting, because they’re actually bringing more kinds of people in,” he says.
Diversity training may actually cause a backlash in its participants, particularly if people feel forced to attend. “If I tell you, ‘Don’t think of an elephant,’ you’ll be thinking about elephants,” says Dobbin. “If you tell people to think about their biases, their biases may be activated.”
For example, a 2015 study by psychologists from the University of Washington and UC Santa Barbara found that in simulated job interviews with 77 white men, participants experienced increased cardiovascular stress after reading a pro-diversity message. (The experiment did not include people from other demographics.) In an additional study that included people of other gender and racial backgrounds, the researchers found that white men were also more likely to believe they were being treated unfairly. “Importantly, diversity messages led to these effects regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world,” the authors wrote in a summary of their study for Harvard Business Review. These responses, they continue, “exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.”
Diversity training may also do more for the company than for the workers. UC Berkeley law professor Lauren Edelman has found that in discrimination lawsuits, judges evaluate a company’s compliance with anti-discrimination laws based on the mere presence of diversity policies, rather than their effectiveness. Ultimately, a company may find that spending money on diversity training is cheaper than a lawsuit, and so the purpose of the workshop becomes symbolic, argues Newkirk, a professor of journalism at New York University. Training may be ineffective, too, because people now use the word diversity to refer to an abstract debate about fairness, rather than to undo specific historical inequities. “The term has been broadened to the point where it’s become meaningless,” says Newkirk.
Nord, for example, has participated in diversity seminars that barely discuss racism, if at all. Some workshop leaders, he says, will cast differences in education backgrounds and job experience as “diversity.” “People play a game with [the definition] so that they don’t have to actually focus on justice, accountability, or change,” says Nord. Often, he finds the workshops focus on the needs of white women, while ignoring other underrepresented groups. “In most of my experience, these seminars have been bad,” says Nord.
“Diversity” wasn’t always meaningless. When diversity initiatives began with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s, policymakers specified concrete objectives such as the integration of schools and the reduction of poverty. The definition of diversity began to broaden, some legal experts say, with the 1978 Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
In that case, a white man named Allan Bakke argued that his rejection from the UC Davis School of Medicine, which capped the number of white students admitted, stemmed from reverse discrimination. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Bakke’s admission to the school and deemed racial quotas unconstitutional. “The notion of reverse discrimination, that if you try to address this legacy of bigotry that you are hurting whites, has been an ongoing theme since the Bakke decision,” says Newkirk. In 2016, in Fisher v. University of Texas, a white woman, Abigail Fisher, argued a similar case before the Supreme Court regarding a college rejection. (The court ruled against her in favor of the university’s diversity admission policy in a 4-3 decision.)