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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Diversity training' costs billions, but does it work?

There's no evidence diversity training works and some evidence it hurts, writes Jesse Singal in a New York Times commentary.

Credit: DALL-E

The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) industry has exploded, reaching an estimated $3.4 billion in 2020, he writes. Workshops are supposed to "foster better intergroup relations, improve the retention of minority employees, close recruitment gaps and so on."

"Diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around,”wrote sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in 2018. Mandatory workshops may lead to negative backlash or worsen pre-existing biases.

These days, DEI programs "often blame white people — or their culture — for harming people of color," writes Singal. Many "run counter to the views of most Americans — of any color — on race and equality."

For example, the activist Tema Okun’s work cites concepts like “objectivity” and “worship of the written word” as characteristics of “white supremacy culture.” Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility” trainings are intentionally designed to make white participants uncomfortable. And microaggression trainings are based on an area of academic literature that claims, without quality evidence, that common utterances like “America is a melting pot” harm the mental health of people of color.
. . . the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture . . . had to issue an apology after it posted an Okunesque graphic that presented rational thought, hard work and “emphasis on scientific method” as attributes of “white culture.”

Okun's ideas make a lot of non-white people uncomfortable too. School district trainings that tell teachers that objectivity, rationality, writing and the scientific method are inherently white strike me as racist.

DEI trainings are generating lawsuits, writes Singal. To improve an organization's DEI issues, “focus on actions and behaviors rather than hearts and minds,” suggests Robert Livingston, a Harvard lecturer who works as a bias researcher and a diversity consultant.

For example, "if you want more Black and Latino people in management roles at your large company, that might require gathering data on what percentage of applicants come from these groups, interviewing current Black and Latino managers on whether there are climate issues that could be contributing to the problem and possibly beefing up recruitment efforts at, say, business schools with high percentages of Black and Latino graduates," writes Singal. That takes time and effort.

“Some organizations want to do window dressing,” Livingston told Singal. “And if so, then, OK, bring in a white fragility workshop and know you’ve accomplished your goal.”

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