Diversity training part 2: The five reasons diversity training (usually) fails

In part one in this three-part series on diversity training, we looked at the academic research on whether diversity training generally leads to reductions in biased attitudes or behaviors. The research indicates that most diversity training is among the most expensive, and least effective, tactics for increasing your company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In this post, we’ll examine why diversity training (usually) fails to consistently change how participants think or act. In part three, we’ll cover what works.

There are five main reasons researchers believe that diversity training generally fails to reduce bias or discrimination.


1. Trainings aren’t effective at any kind of long-term belief or behavioral change

“Short-term educational interventions in general do not change people,” Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, wrote for Anthropology Now. “Look at workplace safety and health training. Employers cannot expect training to change the workplace without making other changes.”

Changing beliefs, emotions, and behavior is hard. For example, Lindsey, King, Membere, and Cheung at Harvard Business Review recommend diversity training include perspective-taking. The idea is that trying to see things from a diverse person’s point of view helps people care more about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet some research shows the tie between perspective-taking and empathy is weak at best.

2. Changing attitudes doesn’t necessarily change behavior

Diversity training may impact how workers think and feel. That doesn’t always translate into changing how they act. There’s surprisingly little correlation between most people’s attitudes and behavior. Even the correlation between bias and discrimination is weak. In other words, people will routinely discriminate against people without feeling biased against them or thinking poorly of them. At the same time, people routinely feel biased against people or thinking poorly of them but don’t engage in discriminatory behavior.

As discussed in part one, diversity training originated with the introduction of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), meant to measure unconscious prejudices that affect up to 95% of people. Trainers believe that making people aware of their unconscious biases will motivate them to work toward correcting them.

But the IAT turns out to be not that good at predicting behaviour, according to Brian Nosek, a member of the team that developed the IAT. At best, it counts for 4% of someone’s behavior. Yet other studies show people with more biased IAT scores engaging in less discriminatory behaviour compared with people with less biased IAT scores.

3. Anti-bias training can reinforce stereotypes

Dobbin and Kalev find evidence from field and laboratory studies that asking people to disavow stereotypes can reinforce them by reminding people of them. It’s hard to ignore something you’re told to ignore. “Diversity training typically encourages people to recognize and fight the stereotypes they hold, and this may simply be counterproductive,” they wrote.

4. Diversity training can activate “white fragility”

Participants frequently react to diversity training with hostility, resistance, confusion, and anger, according to Dobbin and Kalev. Some people feel more animosity toward other groups after diversity training. There are a few reasons this may be the case.

In White Fragility, Robin D’Angelo describes the potent defensiveness many white people feel whenever anyone suggests that they may have (intentionally or not) engaged in racist thinking or behavior. This defensiveness prevents people from effectively examining their own biases. Sometimes people even reduce their support for diversity after diversity training because they fear leaders won’t treat them fairly.

University of Chicago CS Professor Chelsea Troy sees the problem as perfectionism. “Folks conflate critiques of their thoughts and actions with critiques of them as people,” Troy writes. People believe that if they are biased then they must also be irredeemable. So they believe they must deny or defend having any bias in order to continue to believe they are good people.

5. People hate being told what to do

Research shows that people react negatively when they feel external controls on their thoughts and behavior. Researchers find that workers perform more poorly when they feel they lack autonomy at work. People are down with diversity, when they think it’s their idea.

Dobbin and Kalev found that white people tended to resent external pressure to reduce their prejudice against Black people and actually increase their bias unless they began to want to reduce it.

Going forward

Diversity training seems intuitive and is well-intended. Unfortunately, short-term training of any kind is generally ineffective at changing people’s attitudes and behavior. Training is even less effective when used in isolation. It’s even more complicated when you consider that changing people’s attitudes doesn’t reliably change their behaviour. In trying to change people’s attitudes or behavior, sometimes you’ll get pushback that makes the problem even worse.

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