Patrice Onwuka: Diversity Initiatives Need a Reboot

In the May 23 Washington Examiner, Philanthropy Roundtable Adjunct Senior Fellow Patrice Onwuka wrote an op-ed offering an alternative to the failing diversity agenda approaches seen in the business, academic and nonprofit sectors, focusing on True Diversity instead. 

Read the full piece below: 

A recent Gallup poll of human resources executives found that 84% say their organizations have increased investment in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives. But according to the same poll, only 31% of employees believe their organization is truly committed to equality.  

Instead of bringing about improvement, the diversity agenda in business, academia, and the nonprofit sector has divided people into battling social identity groups. Decades of well-intended diversity efforts meant to give women and minorities greater opportunities have proven to be ineffective. Even worse, they undermine social cohesion and hardly moved the needle for the most disadvantaged.  

This moment calls for new approaches. Discrimination does exist, and too many women, minorities, and disadvantaged people are locked out of opportunities for economic mobility. However, the hyperfocus on immutable characteristics and group identities has created tribalism, while individual progress and fulfillment have been lost in the shuffle.  

In 2009, researchers Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Harvard University and Donald P. Green of Yale University analyzed hundreds of observational, laboratory, and field experimental studies on interventions for reducing prejudice and the social problems associated with it, including discrimination, inequality, and violence. They concluded that it’s uncertain whether a wide range of programs and policies —-from bias training to inspirational speeches — actually work to reduce these societal woes.  

Several years later, Paluck and co-authors came to a similar conclusion after analyzing hundreds more experimental studies. They were “disappointed” that they could not “find a broad evidence base on which to draw conclusions about the efficacy of diversity training.” Yet, as they noted, diversity training is still the popular turn-to “in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.” The global response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 comes to mind.  

If anything, mandated diversity initiatives have hampered the progress of disadvantaged individuals. In fact, companies have seen adverse job progress among women and minorities after the impositions of top-down mandated diversity programming. For example, a study of data from more than 800 U.S. companies showed that five years after instituting required training for managers, “the share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%.”  

Diversity initiatives can also worsen workplace cohesion. Bias training has triggered a backlash from those who are positioned as the perpetrators of inequities. It’s also backfired among individuals of underrepresented groups who are left feeling alienated. Some minorities resent the tokenism that such efforts lead to.  

Contemporary diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) approaches fail those who lack opportunity, which is why recognizing true diversity does not group people according to single characteristics. As journalist Jesse Singal explained , DEI attempts “seem geared more toward sparking a revolutionary understanding of race relations than solving organizations’ specific problems.” Undermining soft skills, which employers seek , will not help unskilled workers stuck in minimum-wage jobs climb the ladder or build careers not at risk of automation.  

A better solution is to recognize what true diversity really is: respect for the kaleidoscope of experiences and characteristics that shape the whole person, not just skin color and gender. These may be internal cognitive and intellectual dimensions, such as risk aversion, education, and philosophical orientation, or external factors, such as background, zip code, and household income.  

Valuing individuals for their unique experiences and perspectives will provide a greater benefit to our society.  

While it is easy to understand that wanting to elevate those around us seems doable if we just focus on race and gender categorizes people based on superficial characteristics. And though it may be easier to apply this kind of one-size-fits-all approach and claim victory than it is to get to know people as individuals, companies will never achieve true intellectual and experiential diversity this way.  

Workplaces should figure out what problem — if any — they aim to solve rather than implementing aimless diversity initiatives to be perceived in a better light. They must also recognize that true diversity calls for honest and direct conversations and different perspectives — not just limited to race or gender — to improve critical thinking and sharpen debates.  

In addition, workplaces need proven strategies, not just popular ones that are easy to implement. As the research demonstrates, they may not work or may work against intended outcomes.  

Behavioral science offers some recommendations , and practitioners are developing new ideas that reject divisive initiatives, mandates, box-checking, and lowered standards. The goal is to move toward embracing the whole of each person — their experiences, backgrounds, culture, and insights.  

Advancing women or disadvantaged workers need not be a pipe dream if we awaken to the reality that the diversity agenda needs a reboot. 

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