Study: Diversity training is worthwhile, but no panacea
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Study: Diversity training is worthwhile, but no panacea

Recent years — and especially the last few months — have seen nothing less than a social revolution in the United States. The #MeToo, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements have mobilized a wide spectrum of Americans in support of equal treatment for people of diverse identities.

Against that backdrop, for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike are looking to create or improve Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives, which often include diversity training.

But therein lies a conundrum. Many arguments for diversity training have met counter-arguments describing how it fails to actually change employee behavior. What’s a training manager to think?

Attitudes and behavior

Of course, a single study about the pros and/or cons of diversity training can’t settle the debate forever. Still, it’s worth looking at recent experimental research that was led by academics at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate business school.

The research team created three online training courses taking about an hour to complete. These were administered on a voluntary basis to 3,000+ employees of a large international organization, split into three groups. One group got training designed to reduce gender bias specifically, another training in reducing bias across race, gender and sexual orientation. The third, the control, got training that emphasized psychological safety and active listening, but didn’t mention bias or stereotypes.

After everyone had undergone the training, the researchers measured participants’ attitudes via survey questions. They also observed participants’ behaviors vis-a-vis the material they’d covered in the training. The participants were observed as they took part in programs created by the employer that had no explicit connection with the diversity training.

Some positives

The results? Not bad, overall.

The researchers said what stood out was the greater support for women’s rights among the anti-bias trainees compared with the control group. The first and second groups were more likely to acknowledge the existence of gender discrimination and to support pro-female policies. They also were more likely to agree that they harbored as much gender bias as the average American — an important admission — and to express determination to behave in gender-inclusive ways at work.

In regard to racial minorities, the researchers found one positive effect: Trainees were more likely to admit to racial attitudes that were no better than the general population. Again, this is a positive, because on their own, people tend to overestimate the degree to which they’re fair and free of prejudice.

These were all measurements of attitudes. How about behavior?

There, the picture was more nuanced. The researchers found that the diversity training didn’t have much effect on workplace behaviors overall. But it did reinforce the pro-female and pro-minority behaviors of members of those groups. In other words, the training mobilized women and minorities to more consistently support people like them at work.

What’s the value?

So then we come to the million dollar question: How worthwhile is a brief, online diversity training session? The researchers were guardedly optimistic. For one thing, the training did appear to change attitudes. As for behavior, here’s what they said:

“Even if brief diversity training interventions do not influence behavior for many groups, other benefits of diversity training may exist that we did not measure. For instance, offering diversity training may signal that diversity is valued, and trainings may also set norms of inclusion. Both the establishment of social norms and the signaling of organizational values may lead to benefits for women and racial minorities in the workplace.”

The researchers also suggested that diversity training lasting weeks or months might be more effective. This idea is borne out by a study from the University of Wisconsin in which a 12-week diversity course dramatically reduced racial bias among participants. That could be more time than a lot of employers are willing to put in, however.

The final verdict on diversity training? It’s going to depend on your own judgment and the state of your organization. But this research from Wharton seems to indicate that it might be an idea worth pursuing.

(This blog entry is based on the following study: Chang, E. et al. (2019). The Mixed Effects of Online Diversity Training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(16):201816076.)

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