Diversity training doesn’t work

We’re living in a cultural era with growing awareness of diversity — by which I mean representation of people from a variety of marginalised groups as well as those living at the intersections — and that awareness is coming with an understanding that halls of power are…not very diverse. Whether we’re talking about upper management, Congress, or media, there’s a decidedly white, cis, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, nondisabled, male slant to things when it comes to who is making decisions and how decisions are made. That slant comes through at every level of power and dictates some of the most basic experiences of society — when disablism is assumed to be the norm in government, for example, disabled people have a hard time fighting social policies that hurt them.

Earnest individuals and organisations with a desire to address the problem have come up with a brilliant solution: Diversity training! Surely, if they make people aware of biases, discrimination, and the need for diversity through workshops, guided activities, panels, lecture series, and more, everything will be magically fixed. People will understand each other, respect their different backgrounds, and work cooperatively to solve situational and social problems — women won’t be subject to sexual harassment, people of colour won’t be barred from advancement in the office, and disabled people will be elected to more positions in government.

If this worked, we would know it, because diversity training has been in use for quite some time, and we haven’t seen significant changes in the landscape for people from marginalised groups. Though there is a shift, it’s very slow, and it’s a reaction to a lot of factors, but diversity training likely isn’t one of them. We know this because multiple studies have demonstrated that diversity training isn’t just ineffective, but is possibly dangerous — that people may leave such training sessions with more biases than they started out with, which is a chilling proposition.

Making people aware of diversity problems in the workplace can actually make such problems worse — not least because people from dominant groups may either resent such training, or assume that now that it has been provided, the problem has been resolved. The notions of ‘special treatment’ and ‘reverse discrimination’ are pervasive in society at the moment, and they’re extremely large contributors to the social attitudes that keep members of marginalised groups back. It’s extremely difficult to advance in society when people are convinced that biases don’t exist, and that discussing them is just evidence of whining and oversensitivity.

People bring up biases and their effects because they are actually experiencing them, and tactics like workplace affirmative action, which supposedly increases the representation of marginalised groups in the workplace, actually don’t seem to help at all. There’s a backlash effect that happens with things like sexual harassment training, where people who undergo training are actually more likely to engage in biased behavior. The training modules used are often clunky, unimaginative, and ridiculous, and people respond to them like anyone would respond to condescension — with irritation and frustration. When they view such education as being the fault of marginalised people, it then becomes their fault. After all, if those ‘minorities’ hadn’t whined so much, this ridiculous training wouldn’t be necessary.

So why do companies and organisations keep using diversity training, despite the mounting number of studies indicating that it is not only ineffective, but sometimes actively harmful? On the one hand, it reflects the delay in evidence-based practice that tends to plague organisations, especially when it comes to evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They fervently want to believe that it’s possible to train bias out of people, so they’re going to keep trying to do it even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That includes internal organisational evidence, such as repeat lawsuits indicating that there are still systemic problems with issues like harassment within an organisation.

It also reflects the belief that it’s possible to fix social inequality with a neat little patch. Structural inequality isn’t about identifying a single symptom — like discriminatory practices in the workplace — and then providing a simplistic approach. It requires acknowledging and analysing the incredibly complicated institutional structures that create and reinforce bias, from top to bottom. Bias training tends to be something that progressives champion (in part because conservatives don’t care) and they mistakenly believe that it allows them to solve the problem…or they think it makes for good PR to show people how sensitive they are and how committed to diversity they are, as an organisation.

Bias training looks sexy, which is why people like it. It’s very public and showy, and something people can clearly point to as something they’re doing, an actionable moment in organisational history. But it’s superficial, and it doesn’t force people to delve more deeply into the attitudes they hold and advance. Having diversity conversations is difficult, but diversification starts with engaging with structural inequality on the ground level — whether people are talking about what keeps people out of political positions or addressing the uniformity of upper management. And taking action on bias requires actually taking action, not attending a workshop where everyone talks about their feelings and fills out some worksheets.

Image: Modelo, Andy Arciga, Flickr