The trouble with the ‘diversity doesn’t work’ argument

Does diversity work

9th October 2017

Several articles in the media have recently called into question the value and science behind Diversity Training and its impact.

As a leading diversity training provider in the UK and beyond, we wanted to examine these arguments and prove that Diversity Training is beneficial for all who take part in it – both the individuals and the organisations they work for, as well as wider society.

As such, we interviewed Dan Robertson, a highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity and inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership, for his thoughts on the Diversity Training debate.

Marshall E-Learning: Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States represent significant disrupters to our cultural, political and business landscapes. Is there a reason for the rise in these “anti-diversity” trends?

Dan Robertson: Despite the many different reasons for such results, these two events do share a number of common themes, one being both campaigns were anti-diversity in nature, playing into the psychology of “it’s all gone too far”, accompanied by a mantra of Britain / America First.

This anti-diversity theme has in recent months been picked up by a number of commentators in a Trump-style outburst of emotions.

For instance, Toby Young, the associate editor of The Spectator, states in a recent article entitled ‘The trouble with diversity training? It’s complete hokum’, that the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government has just published the results of a randomised control trial involving 21,000 employees of the Australian Public Service to see if the introduction of ‘blind recruiting’ would help promote gender equality and diversity.

As correctly stated in his article, the employees were asked to shortlist candidates for a managerial position, with half of them being given the names of candidates and other identity markers and the other half not. The study showed that the participants were 2.9 percent more likely to shortlist female candidates, and 3.2 percent less likely to shortlist male candidates.

Marshall E-Learning: According to Toby Young, this is evidence that unconscious bias doesn’t exist. Surely, we’d expect to see the opposite result, right?

Dan Robertson:  Wrong.

Firstly, the Spectator article added a zero to the sample size.

Secondly, the author of the Australian team (who a colleague of mine has corresponded with) acknowledges that giving people one CV when they know the agenda actually distorts results. The report acknowledges that this is a problem with the study.

When we examine more robust research from behaviour science, we see that blind screening has shown to be an effective tool for hiring diverse talent. As stated by the Harvard Kennedy School Professor Iris Bonnet, by simply introducing blind auditions, US orchestras in the 1970s had a positive impact on the hiring of female musicians by more than 30 percent.

Marshall E-Learning:  In a separate article in HR Magazine, Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London argues that diversity initiatives have not worked particularly well, if at all. He argues:

“One of the major problems with the way organisations and the government have approached Diversity & Inclusion is that they have broadly failed to collect any measurement data, let alone good-quality evidence. HR has no idea what is working and what is not”.

What do you make of this argument?

Dan Robertson:   This is not my experience of working with global business over the last decade.

Indeed, many businesses have a wide set of diversity data covering the recruitment, retention and progression rates of diverse talent as well employee engagement data.

Back to Bonnet, her evidence-based research has highlighted a number of activities that do work:

  1. Role models: Seeing women and other groups in senior positions acts as a counter stereotype and works to reduce bias
  2. Crafting group: How groups are composed matters. Contact with people from other social groups reduces prejudice
  3. Shaping Norms: Invoking what others do appears to be more likely to reset organizational norms

Additionally, in a Harvard Business Review article (July – August 2016), researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev draw on research from 829 midsize and large U.S. firms to show how diversity initiatives affected the proportion of women and minorities in management. Activities that work include:

  1. Voluntary diversity training: This doesn’t make managers defensive in the way mandatory training does, and results in positive increases for diverse groups
  2. College recruitment targeting: This turns recruiting managers into champions for diversity boosting opportunities for black and Asian-American men as well as women
  3. Diversity task forces: This promotes social accountability

Now, I have to say, despite working in the field of diversity and inclusion, I’m not averse to a detailed critique of the approach. Indeed, I actually think it’s vital that we adopt an evidence-based approach in order to stop doing the stuff that doesn’t work and to channel our efforts into those activities that have shown to both mitigate bias and to promote diverse and inclusive work cultures.

What I do object to, however, is a ‘hit and run’ attack. One that simply complains but offers no solutions. This approach is all too often driven by an implicit ‘it’s all gone too far’ attitude.

So yes, let’s have the debate, but let’s have it informed by science and evidence and not the emotions of the ‘what about me’ politics’ which seem to be creeping in.

Dan Robertson is the Director of VercidaConsulting.com – The Global Diversity and Inclusion Company. You can contact Dan on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1 or email: Dan@Vercidaconsulting.com.

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