“This is an admirable aim, but there is just one big problem: Diversity training is not working.”
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a talk given by the author at the online Counterweight conference in September of 2022.
n recent years, the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has gained steam alongside a tidal wave of social justice activism that began to sweep through Western societies in the mid-2010s. This upsurge in efforts to promote a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society is undoubtedly a positive development, but it has not been without its share of controversy. The vehement disagreements that have emerged, however, have less to do with the overall objectives of DEI and more to do with the strategic and tactical methods by which we strive to achieve it.
In short, DEI controversies are about means rather than ends. One example of this contentious debate comes to light with the seemingly ubiquitous effort to hire diversity training consultants or otherwise implement diversity training initiatives in the workplace, in the university, and in other institutional settings in society. The idea is to provide training and guidance to managers and workers on best practices to facilitate more diverse representations of institutional leadership and workforce. “Diversity training” is perceived as an essential tactical element in the overall strategic effort to reduce prejudice and ensure a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society.
Presumably, few people other than white nationalists and other radical separatists oppose the effort to promote diversity in our institutions. A genuine debate does arise, however, about whether focusing exclusively on diversity of identity comes at the expense of diversity of thought. It is not that diversity of identity and diversity of thought are perceived to be mutually exclusive (in fact, they complement each other). It is identity politics, not the diversity of identity per se, to which people object. That is, the impetus for diversity of identity comes bundled with a politics of identity that raises concerns about the ideological apparatus of “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ) that underlies it.
The nature of CSJ and, more broadly, the history of Critical Theory that galvanizes it in practice, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that it is believed by many critics that CSJ scholars and activists tend to stifle diversity of thought. They brook little if any dissent from anyone who expresses reservations about their specific critiques of social mores that underlie oppressive systems of power. For example, reasonable people may take umbrage with the “Disrupt Texts” pedagogical movement, which seeks “to teach literature through a social justice lens, with an emphasis on centering the voices and experiences of BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color) authors and students.” It is not that critics do not support “a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” Rather, critics believe there is something amiss in the attempt to “challenge the traditional canon” as an instrument to “dismantle oppression.”
Dismantling oppression is a worthy cause, but it should not come at the expense of legitimate disagreements about the nature of literature itself. One does not support oppression because he or she disagrees with Toni Morrison that “canon building is empire building.” It is hard to argue that one is necessarily opposed to dismantling systems of oppressions because he does not agree that Othello is about racism or Taming of the Shrew is about misogyny. To the extent Disrupt Texts insists otherwise, it seems to be more about enforcing a dogma under the guise of “dismantling systems of oppression”.
Thus, in their zeal to dismantle the cultural hegemony of a ruling class, CSJ advocates run the risk of reifying a culture of victimhood that homogenizes thought by tolerating only one way of thinking about how to support marginalized identities. Those objections aside, however, few people presumably object to the idea that everyone should be able to avail himself of the opportunities afforded by society.
“Equity” generates complaints because it is not often clear if the goal is equality of outcome or equality of opportunity. Many right-of-center commentators insist that our aim should be equality of opportunity, while many left-of-center commentators complain that “moral luck” and institutional rigidities rooted in a history of exclusionary practices militate against the realization of equal opportunity. The latter are inclined to emphasize “the root causes of outcome disparities” and believe that the rules in areas such as the law and business have not been applied fairly. Right-of-center commentators tend to believe the rules are fair and are the same for everyone, while left-of-center commentators believe the rules are not fair because outcomes are not “reasonably” similar for everyone. Practically speaking, the debate revolves around questions of policy.
Finally, inclusion is derivative of the other two. That is, if we are more diverse and more equitable, then the presumption is that people of diverse backgrounds will feel welcome in their environment.
In short, the DEI movement is a positive development, but legitimate disagreements arise from differences of perspective that different people bring to bear on both the theory and praxis of DEI and CSJ activism. The question then arises, what are the things we can do to encourage the movement? One of the most prevalent institutional responses has been to employ diversity training programs. As described in a 2021 meta-study of “prejudice reduction” research in the psychological literature, “[t]he notion of diversity training encompasses a wide category of interventions that are ‘designed to attack bias’ among managers and workers.” The idea is that the reduction of bias will foster institutional and cultural changes in hiring practices and behavioral expectations that will necessarily lead to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.
This is an admirable aim, but there is just one big problem: Diversity training is not working.
Let us take a brief tour of the literature.
In September of 2018, an article in Anthropology Now on why diversity training does not work explains that “hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that antibias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior, or change the workplace.” A paper published in 2014 observes that “since the 1980s, major U.S. corporations have embraced diversity as a management strategy to increase the number of women in top jobs. Diversity management programs include targeted recruitment, hiring, and promotions policies; mentoring programs; affinity groups; and diversity training. Few of these programs have proven effective in achieving gender diversity in the corporate world, despite their widespread popularity.” [Emphasis original] Results from a study published in 2019 “suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are not panaceas for remedying bias in the workplace.” Also in 2019, a book by Pamela Newkirk entitled Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business argues that workplace diversity initiatives have been largely ineffective. A 2021 study of “changes in public policy and corporate practice” finds that “elaborate corporate diversity programs and public regulatory systems have largely failed to open opportunity.”
In June 2016, an article in Society for Human Resource Management reported that “[t]he biggest finding of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace may be what it failed to find—namely, any evidence that the past 30 years of corporate training has had any effect on preventing workplace harassment.” In August of 2018, four Baylor University professors reported in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper that they were “unable to find significant statistical evidence that preexisting growth in diversity for underrepresented racial/ethnic minority groups is affected by the hiring of an executive level diversity officer for new tenure and non-tenure track hires, faculty hired with tenure, or for university administrator hires.”
To complete this brief tour, we take note of a 2021 meta-study of “prejudice reduction studies” (418 experiments reported in 309 manuscripts from 2007 to 2019). This meta-study found modest effects at best. It also found significant publication bias, meaning that many studies finding minimal or insignificant impact from prejudice reduction interventions are not published. Among the published studies that did find an effect, the measured effect diminished as sample sizes increased.
It should be noted that the “prejudice reduction” studies covered in this meta-study encompass a much broader set of interventions, such as cognitive and emotional training, imaginary contact, interpersonal contact, peer influence, and social categorization. Diversity training is only one such approach. On this approach along with implicit bias training, however, it concludes, “a fair assessment of our data on implicit prejudice reduction is that the evidence is thin. Together with the lack of evidence for diversity training, these studies do not justify the enthusiasm with which implicit prejudice reduction trainings have been received in the world over the past decade.”
Clearly, then, something is amiss in the field of diversity training. The research indicates that current paradigms for diversity training are not working. This is not to say definitively, however, that diversity training cannot work in principle, nor is it to suggest that the use of diversity trainings as currently employed have been entirely without successes. As one paper writes, “Do America’s costly diversity-management programs work? Some do and some don’t.” Another paper suggests that “initiatives that engage managers in promoting diversity—special recruitment and training programs—will increase diversity.” The same paper also argues that “monitoring by diversity managers and federal regulators will improve the effects of bureaucratic reforms.” But based on an examination of “the effects of personnel innovations on managerial diversity in 816 U.S. workplaces over 30 years,” it finds that “[s]ome popular bureaucratic reforms thought to quell discrimination instead activate it. Some of the most effective reforms remain rare.”
In general, as it stands now, the literature is rife with findings that current practices associated with diversity training are not achieving satisfactory results. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The research is ever evolving. But diversity trainings have been around for decades, so there is a fairly sizable sample of research that suggests the impact is negligible or even harmful.
What should we do? I suggest that there is not much we can—or should—do. That is, there is not a better way to do diversity training. Instead, the notion of diversity training itself is misguided. It is not necessarily about the method but, rather, the very concept of diversity training. But does that mean we should be opposed to the DEI movement in general?
Not at all.
In general, diversity training attempts to change attitudes and behavior based on a paradigm that categorizes people into groups that are ranked by degrees of oppression. In other words, diversity training goes astray because it finds its motivation in identity politics. The culture of victimhood to which this perspective gives rise cultivates an attitude of distrust, resentment, and low morale.
In one notable study, for example, “social liberals were overall more sympathetic to poor people than social conservatives,” but “reading about White privilege decreased their sympathy for a poor White (vs. Black) person.” This suggests that white liberals “draw upon default hierarchies of groups in order to mentally rank who is worst off.” Co-author Erin Cooley observes “that when liberals read about white privilege…it didn’t significantly change how they empathized with a poor black person—but it did significantly bump down their sympathy for a poor white person.”
Diversity training, then, can make people more biased.
It can also reinforce stereotypes or create negative perceptions of those whom diversity training is supposed to help. For example, psychological research suggests a “rebound effect,” whereby “when people attempt to suppress unwanted thoughts, these thoughts are likely to subsequently reappear with even greater insistence than if they had never been suppressed (i.e., a ‘rebound’ effect).” In addition, a 2006 paper found that “[w]hen a diversity rationale rather than a merit rationale was provided for how the work group was assembled, both women (Studies 1 and 2) and Black men (Study 3) were perceived as less competent and were expected to be less influential.”
The paradigm of identity politics on which diversity trainings are based can also make discussions less constructive. For example, “white privilege” is a term that one might encounter in diversity training. A 2022 study found that “mention of white privilege seems to create internet discussions that are less constructive, more polarized, and less supportive of racially progressive policies.” [Emphasis original] Diversity training can also make people more resentful. Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi observes that “training often alienates people from high-status groups” and “reduces morale.” For example, “many members from the dominant group walk away from the training believing that themselves, their culture, their perspectives and interests are not valued at the institution—certainly not as much as those of minority team members—reducing their morale and productivity.”
The takeaway is that identity politics is divisive. It highlights differences rather than our similarities and commonalities. It may be said that, in diversity trainings, people are not being patient enough, not putting in enough effort, putting selfish interests ahead of common interests, or allowing themselves to succumb to a proclivity to feel resentment and underappreciation. I disagree. As the ancient Stoics argued, we are all part of a rational cosmos. We are all universally endowed with reason. We all have the potential to live up to the best that we can possibly be as human beings, as creatures of nature, as creatures of reason. We all have the capacity to live in accordance with nature.
When we fully appreciate this naturalistic conception of human nature, we are able to appreciate the famous passage in Epictetus’s Discourses: “Say not that I am an Athenian, or that I am from Corinth, but that I am a citizen of the world.”.
Jonathan Church is a government economist and author. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He can be found on X @jondavidchurch