Does Diversity Training Work?

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Does diversity training work?

Last week, I pointed to a post about a Duke divinity professor who sparked a furor over free speech and political correctness when he publicly disparaged a diversity-training program and urged his colleagues to avoid it. I also noted that he isn’t alone. There are plenty of people who view such training as ineffective — saying it does little to actually improve diversity and may even be counterproductive. But is it? There is some evidence to back up their claims. Studies have shown that educating people about their knee-jerk prejudices doesn’t necessarily change their behavior for the better. In fact, mandating diversity-training sessions — especially when implemented with an eye towards checking a box or avoiding liability — can make discrimination worse, as multiple articles in the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere have observed. 

It’s important to note, however, that the Duke training session was optional, and voluntary programs have had far better results, studies show. In fact, a promising new approach by Patricia Devine, the psychologist who first identified "implicit bias," might offer a way to diminish it, an article by Jessica Nordell in The Atlantic suggests. Instead of lecturing participants in her workshops, Ms. Devine treats bias as a reflexive habit of the mind: There’s little question that humans see age, gender, and skin color, and have cultural associations about these categories, Ms. Nordell explains. There’s no sense trying to fight it. But humans also use these “associations to make judgments,” she adds, and that, Ms. Devine believes, is a habit that can be broken. To do so, however, people must first be conscious of it, have a desire to change it, and have a strategy to counter it, she told Ms. Nordell. That’s where the training comes in. The workshops help participants develop strategies — like check your own stereotypes and replace them with unbiased ones, “look for situational reasons for a person’s behavior,” rather than generic group stereotypes — to try when they feel their knees jerking, Ms. Nordell explains. 

The approach sounds simple, but, apparently, it works. Still, it’s at best a partial solution, she notes. (Which is why organizations would still be wise to pair it with structural solutions that remove the bias from the hiring and promotion process rather than the person, she adds.) The training may do little to change the mindsets of people who don’t attend or are convinced they don’t need to, but you've got to start somewhere.

Why older workers might be better workers.

Think older people have less energy at work than their younger colleagues? That’s not just “ageist” but plain wrong, Lucy Kellaway, an associate editor and columnist with the Financial Times, writes in an article for the Irish Times. If anything, she suggests, it’s the other way around. Younger workers might “have biology on their side,” but then they go and “ruin it” by partying until dawn or having kids, which, as any parent can attest, is the “single most exhausting thing” people do, Ms. Kellaway writes. “I was so tired for most of my 30s and early 40s that, even though I must have found some energy for my job, I really cannot remember how. I have blanked the whole thing,” she recalls. In contrast, she and many of her peers now come to work feeling more energized because they go to sleep on time, exercise more, and eat better than they did when they were younger. Biology might be “against us,” but we’ve learned “to marshal our limited resources to the best possible effect,” she says.

Segregation is alive and well in the U.S., and no one bats an eye at it.

Did you know that certain citizens are routinely denied access to public spaces or, if admitted, forced to use separate entrances? That they’re commonly treated as second-class citizens, taken for drunks or idiots, or worse? If you don’t believe me, read this compelling New York Times account by Luticha Doucette, a researcher for the city of Rochester and a disability-rights activist, on life as a black woman in a wheelchair and the “painful specter of racial segregation” it evokes: “I am keenly aware of the irony of being ushered through back ways, sketchy hallways, side entrances and kitchens to enter restaurants, bars and other establishments,” she writes. Of course, if blacks today were regularly barred entry or forced to use a different door on account of their skin color, there’d be an outcry about rights violations. And rightfully so. Yet for wheelchair users, such indignities remain fact of life, and few people seem to notice or care.

When it comes to installing ramps for ducks, though, everyone’s got an opinion.

Short Takes

Why you should seek out strangers.

If variety is the spice of life, diversity is the “necessary condition” for all learning, writes Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences and a professor of global studies and of sociology at Bentley University, in Massachusetts, in a Chronicle Review article (for subscribers). If we’re not interacting with people unlike ourselves, then we’re probably limiting our learning potential, he explains.

That’s all the more reason for colleges to break out of their liberal bubbles, suggests Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in a recent Wall Street Journal article. He calls on colleges to create an "affirmative action" program for conservative, libertarian, and religious thinking.

The leadership secrets of great team captains

In a piece adapted from his new book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams,  the Wall Street Journal editor Sam Walker looks at the six most underrated team captains in sports history and which traits made them exceptional leaders. Hint: They’re not the ones you’d expect.

Confidentiality in presidential searches

What’s gained and lost when the details of a search are kept secret? A piece in The Chronicle explains.

Diversity in college athletics administration

Most college football and basketball players are black, yet the majority of coaches and administrators are white, says Bernard Franklin, the NCAA's chief inclusion officer, in an article in The Washington Post. So last September, the organization came up with a voluntary "presidential pledge" aimed at countering the problem and encouraging more diversity in hiring, the paper says. Seven months later, almost a third of the NCAA's 1,200 member schools have yet to sign the pledge, while the presidents of Notre Dame and Boston College have refused to sign it, the article notes.

Meanwhile, women are finally making some inroads into the highest levels of college sports administration, according to an article in The ChronicleHere’s how they did it. (for subscribers)

Here are a couple other stories that caught my eye this week.

“Dragons are for white kids with money.”

Think being a geek is tough? Try being a geek of color, writes Daniel Jose Ruiz, an English professor at Los Angeles City College, in an article on The Millions, an online magazine on books, art, and culture. Not only are most sci-fi writers white, but the “canon of geekdom” consists almost entirely of novels centered on “white characters, featuring tokenism at best and downright racial animosity at worst,” he explains. (ht: Gerry Canavan)

… So are ‘Little Free Libraries’

You know those birdhouse-like book-huts that you see in people’s yards? They’re typically in neighborhoods where public libraries are plentiful and the residents are white, according to an article from The Atlantic’s Citylab.

Questions, Comments?

Have a suggestion for the newsletter or a tip or story idea to share? Send it to me at gabriela.montell@chronicle. com or @GabrielaMontell.

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