Why So Many Diversity Programs Fail

Sociology professors unpack research into why traditional diversity efforts don’t work to get more women and minorities hired and promoted.

Why So Many Diversity Programs Fail
[Photo: Flickr user Dee Ashley]

While some tech companies have made incremental gains for their efforts to increase women and under-represented minorities among their ranks, the overall business landscape isn’t faring much better.


According to theEqual Employment Opportunity Commission’s last tally, American companies with more than 100 workers have posted marginal increases. A national aggregate of all industries between 1985 to 2014 shows: An increase from 3% to 3.3% of black men in management roles, and an increase from 22% to 29% of white women in management through the year 2000, and no movement since then.

This despite multi-million dollar investments in programs designed to make companies attract and retain a more diverse group of employees. The problem, according to Frank Dobbin, sociology professor at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, is that these programs don’t work.

“Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data,” they write, “companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better.”

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Dobbin and Kalev discuss how they delved into three decades of data drawn from over 800 U.S. businesses, as well as hundreds of interviews with managers and executives. What they found was that the programs which were originally put in place were heavy on policing bias in order to tamp down expensive lawsuits. The reasoning was that it simplified the expectations which made them easy to defend.

This tended to have the opposite effect. “You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and reeducation,” Dobbin and Kalev write. One by one, they debunk the most common tools used to promote and protect diversity.

The Trouble With Training Programs

Training is a big offender, partly because at some companies it’s mandatory and remedial, and partly because it can be cloaked in negative language.


Dobbin and Kalev note that nearly 1,000 studies have been conducted to gauge the efficacy of diversity training to help people abolish their biases. While they help in the short term, as soon as a couple of days later, participants forget. Worse, they actually incited biases according to some of the research.

According to their five-year analysis, required training 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 report.

Hiring tests don’t really solve the diversity problem, either, for some of the same reasons. In theory, skills-based testing is designed to level the playing field and let the best candidate shine. But managers didn’t appreciate being told to hire someone they didn’t hand select. Dobbin and Kalev also found that some companies were only giving the tests to people they didn’t want to hire, i.e. under-represented minorities. Or, they just ignored the results in favor of picking who they wanted.

Dobbin and Kalev observe:

“Companies that institute written job tests for managers—about 10% have them today—see decreases of 4% to 10% in the share of managerial jobs held by white women, African-American men and women, Hispanic men and women, and Asian-American women.”

Punching A Hole In Performance Ratings

Annual reviews are often accompanied by a ratings system that is supposed to encourage fair pay and advancement of talented workers. But ratings, like training programs, are also used as a tool to guard against lawsuits.

Even so, Dobbin and Kalev found that managers continue to give poor reviews to women and minorities. Or, they give everyone a high score and promote who they want. Companies that use ratings systems saw no effect on the number of managers who are minorities and the percentage of white women managers dropped by 4%.


Problematic Grievance Procedures

Grievance procedures are put in place as the last step to combat discrimination. These, too, have set opposing forces in motion. Although they can speak up, some workers are reluctant to do so for fear of retaliation. This, in turn, allows managers to believe nothing is wrong. Or worse, people let bias rule their decisions, thinking that company policy should guarantee fairness.

Dobbin and Kalev write, “Our quantitative analyses show that the managerial ranks of white women and all minority groups except Hispanic men decline—by 3% to 11%—in the five years after companies adopt them.”

What Actually Works

The researchers believe there are better ways to promote diversity by engaging managers and staff in a positive holistic way. They tout the benefits of voluntary training as a balm to forced sessions. Dobbin and Kalev document increases of 9% to 13% in black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years from the time a company implemented such a program.

For hiring, Dobbin and Kalev suggest getting managers on board through college recruitment programs targeted to women and minorities. This serves a dual purpose to allow them to voluntarily participate, as well as framing the task in a positive way. Managers tend to take their campus visits more seriously as they look to find the best minority candidates among the students.

Formal mentoring helps women and minorities with professional advancement as well. While white, male executives may be eager to mentor young workers, they aren’t always comfortable taking on a female or minority mentee. A formal corporate program that matches mentors with proteges boosts diversity. Dobbin and Kalev observe, “In industries where plenty of college-educated non-managers are eligible to move up, like chemicals and electronics, mentoring programs also increase the ranks of white women and black men by 10% or more.”

Contact between groups, social accountability, and diversity managers are other ways the researchers have found better promotes diversity in the workplace. The latter strategy is being embraced by a growing number of tech companies such as Pinterest, Airbnb, and Atlassian.


As Dobbin and Kalev say, “The very good news is that we know what does work—we just need to do more of it.”

via Harvard Business Review

How to start fixing tech’s diversity problem


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.