The effectiveness of diversity training depends on the effort expended

‘Does diversity training work?’ is the wrong question, writes Editor-in-Chief Tim Wilbur

Does diversity training work? For some advocates, even asking the question is a problem, and for others, the answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’ The reality is that the effectiveness of training depends on how it is done.

Research studies back this up. Critics of diversity training will cite findings by academics Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev that organizations will become less diverse, not more, if they require managers to go to diversity training.

Yet other studies have shown that when diversity training is done well, it can work. A meta-analysis published by Katerina Bezrukova, Chester Spell, Jamie Perry and Karen Jehn found that, “while many of the diversity training programs fell short in demonstrating effectiveness on some training characteristics,” some did succeed. Training was more successful when it was complemented by other diversity initiatives, targeted to both awareness and skills development, was conducted over a significant period or had a higher proportion of women in a group.

Another group of academics, Alex Lindsey, Eden King, Ashley Membere and Ho Kwan Cheung, found that “perspective-taking,” which is essentially the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes, can be effective, and having an authority figure endorse the importance of diversity initiatives can also help.

In other words, to be successful in changing people’s minds, you need to put the hard work into doing it right. Otherwise, it just might backfire.

This is a lesson that came out loud and clear when we spoke with Indigenous lawyers and educators for our cover story this month. With recent controversies about the “mandatory” nature of diversity training in the legal profession, we felt it was important to hear from the Indigenous community about what they think works.

Their answers confirm the academic studies that training needs to be done properly; otherwise, it is not worth the effort. “If you really want to do the hard work of undertaking teaching about Indigenous issues,” lawyer Maggie Wente told us, “you have to some way inform yourself about what’s going on.”

So, perhaps asking “does diversity training work?” is the wrong question. The real question is what training works and what will backfire. And the answer is simple. We need to put in the work. 


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