Diversity training: what’s the point?

Lifelong learning is often treated as a magic potion – ignored and even despised for the most part, then  enthusastically embraced as the ideal solution when crisis hits. I’ve long thought that one of the best examples of this trend is the way in which organisations suddenly offer diversity training in response to criticism, as the Metropolitan Police did when the Macpherson Report concluded that its current procedures and policies were ‘institutionally racist’.

bohnet-cover

From the Mechanics Institute Library milibrary.org

In short, I think that senior managers often use diversity training as a fig leaf or a diversionary tactic. Rather than changing their practices, they try to change the attitudes of staff, particularly relatively junior staff. In turn, people who are sent on diversity courses on a more or less compulsory basis are hardly going to be the most receptive learners. The upshot is that cynical leaders purchase cynical training programmes which  produce cynical workforces.

In a new book which is attracting widespread attention, Iris Bohnet argues that apart from anything else, diversity training simply doesn’t work. There is simply no substantial evidence base of its effectiveness, nor would she expect it to work because it tries to engage the rational part of our brain in finding rational solutions, when what we need is to avoid the problems in the first place. If we want  to overcome gender bias in organizations and society, we should focus on de-biasing systems (eg how we evaluate performance, recruit, promote, or form teams) rather than on de-biasing people.

New Picture

You can read more about Prof Bohnet’s case in her new book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. I suspect that some people will focus on her ‘take-away’ messages rather than reading the book, and conclude that all diversity training is pointless.  She doesn’t argue that training for diversity, or women’s leadership programmes, are necessarily pointless or counter-productive; on the contrary, she thinks it has a part to play in changing behaviour, along with such other ‘nudge’ factors as gender-blind recruitment procedures.

There is plenty to disagree with in What Works. I found her account of the brain, and its associated decision-making, particularly crude and simplistic. But I do think the overall message – change systems first, and then help workers adapt to the new procedures – is a useful basis for any equality strategy.

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