That Diversity Training Session You Just Sat Through? It Doesn’t Work

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You’re a manager at a large firm. Every so often you sit through a day of diversity training, designed to teach you how to better manage, hire and promote minorities and women. The goal is worthy, you figure, and if your company spends so much money on these sessions then they must work.

Odd that year after year you look around at the other execs and see the same old faces.

Therein lies the proof: these expensive and time-consuming training programs simply don’t work in moving minorities and women into upper management. Those are the findings of a new study published in the American Sociological Review. Worse, it’s apparently the first time anyone’s actually bothered to check.

Three academics–Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of the University of California, Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota–did bother. They mined 30 years of employment data from 700 companies across nine industries to study the effects of programs to address a chronic shortage of minorities in business’s upper ranks.

Those programs typically fall into three categories: diversity training that seeks to change the behavior and attitudes of managers; mentoring or networking; and task forces or staff delegated specifically to help retain and promote minorities and women.

Of the three, diversity task forces work best, boosting black women into management positions by 30%, black men by 10% and white women by 14%.

Mentorships also helped, particularly for black women. In chemicals and engineering, for instance, companies that sponsored mentorship programs saw a 25% jump in black women in management.

Diversity training aimed at tamping bias among managers may actually make things worse: these programs typically were a 6% decrease in the proportion of black women in management.

Why? I called Frank Dobbin to find out. “It’s all about accountability,” he says. Attending a training program is a passive activity: you sit in a room while some highly paid consultant shows you PowerPoint presentations and videos about racial sensitivity and the benefits of diversity. You eat a donut. Then you go back to your desk and check your e-mail.

On the other hand, task forces set goals. “You sit around a table and brainstorm,” says Dobbin. “You say, We’re having trouble attracting black men. And someone says, Let’s try recruiting at historically black colleges. Then at the next meeting you show your results.”

The way to increase diversity among staff, says Dobbin, is “to treat it like any other business goal.” Just do it; don’t just PowerPoint it.