Since the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, companies are looking for ways to combat racial bias and discrimination at work. The stats are jarring. In one 2009 study, hiring managers were 74% more likely to hire candidates with white-sounding names when their résumés were identical. Despite evidence that teams with more diversity perform better than more homogeneous teams, Black and Latino workers remain underrepresented in STEM.
And things may actually be getting worse. In Silicon Valley, around 1% of tech entrepreneurs are Black, while Black Americans are severely underrepresented in positions of leadership at influential technology companies. As evidence, in 2017 Fast Company reported there were fewer Black women in tech than there were in 2007.
According to research in sociology, nearly all Fortune 500 companies offer some variety of diversity training—yet diverse workers still face bias and discrimination. Referred to as implicit bias training, unconscious bias training, and anti-bias training, these classes are supposed to reduce bias against certain groups, such as women and BIPOC, by making others aware of their biases.
Diversity training is often the go-to after a diversity PR disaster. For example, after a Starbucks barista stopped a Black man from using their restroom without buying something, the company closed 8,000 stores for a half day to put 175,000 workers through diversity training.
These trainings aren’t cheap. U.S. companies spend approximately $8 billion every year on diversity training; Starbucks sacrificed around $12 billion to hold its training.
Lately at my company, we’ve been delving into how to build tech ethically, hire inclusively, and further justice through tech. We’re also deciding which diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to invest in.
There are five main reasons researchers believe that diversity training generally fails to reduce bias or discrimination.
Trainings are not leading to 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 an uphill battle. A first step? Including “perspective-taking” in your training, or the idea is that trying to see things from the perspective of a person different from you, helps people care more about DE&I. Notably, research does point to how the link between perspective-taking and empathy is weak at best.
Changing attitudes doesn’t necessarily change behavior
Diversity training may impact how workers think and feel, though that doesn’t always translate into changing how they act. There’s surprisingly little correlation between most people’s attitudes and behavior. And the correlation between bias and discrimination is weak.
In other words, people will routinely discriminate against people without feeling biased against or thinking poorly of them. At the same time, people can routinely feel biased against people or think poorly of them without engaging in discriminatory behavior.
Diversity training originated with the introduction of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is 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 behavior, 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 behavior compared with people with less-biased IAT scores.
Anti-bias training can reinforce stereotypes
According to the research from sociologists Dobbin and Kalev, requesting people to let go of their stereotypes can actually encourage people to hold onto them tighter. In essence, it’s hard to ignore something you’re told to ignore. They write, “Diversity training typically encourages people to recognize and fight stereotypes. This may simply be counterproductive.”
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 Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility, the author describes the potent defensiveness many white people feel whenever anyone suggests that they may have, intentionally or otherwise, 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,” she says. So people who believe they are biased also believe they are irredeemable. As a result, they believe they must deny or defend having any bias in order to continue to believe they are good people.
Telling people what to do backfires
According to research, 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. In other words, people are more open to diversity initiatives when they think it’s their idea.
Dobbin and Kalev found that people tended to resent external pressure to reduce prejudice, unless they wanted it themselves.
From face value, diversity training seems intuitive and well-intended. Unfortunately, companies and leaders who only adopt short-term training (in the absence of a longer timeline and in conjunction with other efforts) will fall short of genuinely changing workers’ attitudes and behaviors.
Matt Martin is the cofounder and CEO Of Clockwise, an intelligent calendar assistant that frees up your time so you can focus on what matters. The technology uses AI to understand your work and life commitments and automatically organize your calendar.