Diversity Training Study Uncovers an Unexpectedly Positive Behavior Shift

Companies serious about equality "should invest in efforts beyond diversity training."

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Workplace diversity training is commonplace, but the results it creates and the reasons companies implement it drastically vary. Because it’s unclear whether training actually works, scientists recently examined the effects of one program used across 63 countries. As they write in PNAS on Monday, there’s a lot of work to be done in diversity training, but it does seem to promote one important shift in behavior.

Diversity training programs are meant to reduce prejudice and discrimination in the workplace while facilitating an equal, positive environment. In the study, the researchers found that training influenced some shifts in attitude, but those changes did not result in any widely adopted behavioral changes in turn.

First author and University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Edward Chang explains to Inverse that the short, one-off diversity training sessions that are commonplace across organizations are not likely to change most people’s behaviors.

“Organizations that are serious about promoting equality and diversity should invest in efforts beyond diversity training and should ideally partner with scientists to help us all figure out what’s most effective at promoting equality in the workplace,” Chang explains.

But though he thinks these training sessions are “insufficient standalone solutions to inequality and bias,” he is careful to note that his results don’t invalidate diversity training altogether. Merely offering it in a workplace, he points out, is an important signal that a company cares about establishing an inclusive, equal environment.

Social scientists are examining the pros and cons of diversity trainings.

Unsplash / Mikael Kristenson

Avoiding Angry, Negative Responses

In this field experiment, Chang and his colleagues created their own hour-long, science-based online diversity training program and shared that program with 3,016 employees across 63 countries.

"How do you change how people act and think when people hate being told how to act and think?

The program itself was constructed to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of stereotypes, and it shared scientific evidence on the impact of stereotyping and offered employees personalized feedback on how to overcome their own biases.

Notably, the training was also optional — something that other experts say is a helpful way to prevent unintentionally negative consequences of training. For example, Google has made implicit bias training mandatory since 2013. However, some offended, white employees have complained that the training actually shames them.

“I went to a diversity program at Google and. . .I heard things that I definitely disagreed with,” former Google employee James Damore said in 2017. “There was a lot of just shaming — ‘No, you can’t say that, that’s sexist’; ‘you can’t do this’ . . .There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they’re saying.”

How do you change how people act and think when people hate being told how to act and think? Chang and his team were especially cognizant of this question as they designed their program, but their results still emerged skewed.

Some Good News For Women

In the first part of the study, the goal of the training was to promote inclusive attitudes and behaviors towards women. On the bright side, they found that their treatment had a significant positive effect on the willingness of the employees to acknowledge that they even had a gender bias, and outside of the United States, employees who were initially less supportive of women became more supportive of women after the training.

However, the same couldn’t be said for Americans: The only noticeable change was that the women who went through the training became more motivated to mentor other women at the company, once the training was through. 

“Our intervention appears to have prompted women in the United States to both engage in more inclusive behaviors toward women and take more initiative in overcoming any potential obstacles or barriers they face in the workplace,” the scientists write.

“These estimates suggest that for every five women in the United States assigned to the treatment condition (as opposed to the control condition), an additional woman was invited out to coffee for a mentoring meeting.” 

People Primed to Change Can Change

In the second part of the study, the US employees were asked whether they also wanted to partake in a training session on attitudes and behaviors towards racial minorities. As in the gender experiment, people were willing to acknowledge that a bias against racial minorities existed, but in follow-up examinations, the only people who changed their behavior were people from historically disadvantaged racial groups: After training, employees from a racial minority background slightly increased their informal mentoring of other racial minority employees and positively recognized them in public as well.

“Our training may have given people who were already primed to take action the strategies they needed to translate their attitudes and intentions into actions,” Chang says.

There are promising ideas about how to make diversity training better, but Chang says it’s “hard to know exactly what to recommend to organizations because there aren’t many solutions that have been empirically tested in the field.” Though diversity training is widely implemented, its effects aren’t very well studied: This study is thought to be the first to try to measure actual behavioral changes after the training stopped.

When Starbucks announced it would close 8,000 stores for one day of diversity and inclusion training last April, social scientists were concerned that it wouldn’t have any measurable effect. Some panned it as a public relations intervention, one that was never assessed for its ability to create change.

What we need, says Chang, are “more organizations to partner with scientists so we can conduct more large-scale field experiments to provide rigorous evidence of what actually works to promote equality in the workplace.” In other words, it’s not that attempting to make the workplace for everyone isn’t worth it; it’s that we still have to figure out how to make that happen so that the effects last long enough to count.

We present results from a large (n = 3,016) field experiment at a global organization testing whether a brief science-based online diversity training can change attitudes and behaviors toward women in the workplace. Our preregistered field experiment included an active placebo control and measured participants’ attitudes and real workplace decisions up to 20 weeks postintervention. Among groups whose average untreated attitudes—whereas still supportive of women—were relatively less supportive of women than other groups, our diversity training successfully produced attitude change but not behavior change. On the other hand, our diversity training successfully generated some behavior change among groups whose average untreated attitudes were already strongly supportive of women before training. This paper extends our knowledge about the pathways to attitude and behavior change in the context of bias reduction. However, the results suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are unlikely to be stand-alone solutions for promoting equality in the workplace, particularly given their limited efficacy among those groups whose behaviors policymakers are most eager to influence
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