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Why Diversity Programs Backfire And How To Fix Them

Source | FastCompany : By LYDIA DISHMAN

New evidence suggests that diversity programs aren’t quite doing as well as they could.

Tessa Dover and Brenda Major of the University of California, Santa Barbara along with Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington conducted a series of experiments that revealed how some diversity efforts cause a backlash. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that (perhaps not surprisingly) pro-diversity messages make members of high-status groups (i.e.: white men) feel threatened.

“Compared to white men interviewing at the company that did not mention diversity, white men interviewing for the pro-diversity company expected more unfair treatment and discrimination against whites. They also performed more poorly in the job interview, as judged by independent raters. And their cardiovascular responses during the interview revealed that they were more stressed.”

Additionally, the researchers found that some diversity initiatives weren’t really convincing underrepresented minorities that their employer will treat them more fairly.

The authors cite a longitudinal study that analyzed the affirmative action and diversity policies of more than 700 U.S. companies. The study found that diversity programs aimed at eliminating bias among managers were least effective at increasing the share of both white and black women, and black men in management.

The problem, they posit in a post for Harvard Business Review, is that most people assume that diversity policies make companies more fair places to work. But just posting a plan can backfire. They write:

“A 2011 Supreme Court class action case, Walmart successfully used the mere presence of its anti-discrimination policy to defend itself against allegations of gender discrimination. And Walmart isn’t alone: the “diversity defense” often succeeds, making organizations less accountable for discriminatory practices.”


We’ve reported on how training can go wrong, partly because at some companies it’s mandatory and remedial, and partly because it can be cloaked in negative language. Frank Dobbin, sociology professor at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, analyzed close to 1,000 studies that have been conducted to measure the effectiveness of training and found that it resulted in a decrease in the number of people of color across the companies studied. “The share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%,” Dobbin and Kalev wrote.

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