Harvard professor: diversity training fruitless

Stephanie Louise Lu

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Despite the millions of dollars companies spend on diversity training each year, these programs are ineffective, said Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin in a lecture Wednesday evening. Dobbin spoke to an audience of about 100 in the McCormick Tribune Center as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Center on the Science of Diversity.

In his lecture “You Can’t Make Me: Why Diversity Training Backfires,” Dobbin argued that diversity training simply does not make individuals and institutions more open to diversity.

“Companies with diversity training programs are not more diverse,” he said. “What’s frustrating is, it’s the most popular and most expensive type of program that firms spend time, money and energy on.”

Dobbin identified external sanctions as a key factor in the negative impact of diversity training. For example, if a company does not comply with diversity rules, it can be sued for violating civil rights, he said. This kind of pressure can cause psychological resistance.

“If you tell Billy that he will be punished for taking a certain toy from a pile,” Dobbin said, “Then that is the first toy he will reach for when he is left alone in the room.”

The problem is that firms make it mandatory for their employees to attend diversity training, Dobbin said.

The curricula of diversity training programs also tend to focus on legal consequences, rather than the positive benefits gained from working together as a group, he said. Furthermore, special training for managers sends the message that they are at fault and need to hire more diverse employees. Dobbin found such training results in lower employment figures for white women, black women and black men.

Other programs such as mentoring may be more effective, Dobbin said.

Stacy Lom, a fourth-year sociology graduate student, said she attended because she was interested in the sociology of organizations. However, she said she was not surprised by Dobbin’s findings.

“It would probably be surprising to people in the organizations,” she said. “But based on the sociological literatures I’ve read, it’s not surprising that diversity training isn’t working.”

Sociology professor emeritus Arthur Stinchcombe said he has known Dobbin for years and has researched many of the same subjects.

“Since he does very good work, I thought I would learn something, and I did,” he said. “(I learned that) if somebody orders you to have a given sentiment, then you probably won’t have it.”

William Banis, vice president for student affairs, said he attended the lecture because he was interested in the topic, and felt it would be relevant to diversity issues on campus.

“It made me much more curious to see if there are better practices that work,” Banis said.

Dobbin’s lecture was the second of three in the Distinguished Speaker Series organized by the Center on the Science of Diversity. The final speaker will be political science Prof. Michael Dawson from the University of Chicago. His lecture, “From Katrina to Obama: The Black-White Divide in American Public Opinion,” will take place in the McCormick Tribune Center on Wednesday, May 13.