Four women are working over a desk deep in discussion, representing the diversity some corporations promote through policies and procedures at work

Why Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Don’t Work

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are widely accepted and established means through which organizations profess to doing good.

Yet despite their good intentions, few managers understand how diversity management emerged as a way to replace affirmative action policies that were designed to redress institutionalized and systemic racism.

Unlike affirmative action, ‘diversity and inclusion’ is a warm and fuzzy concept that doesn’t threaten anybody’s power. Programs like unconscious bias training make sexism, racism, or ableism out to be ‘natural’ psychological functions, thereby absolving aggressors of any guilt.

Some organizations eagerly dilute diversity so that it’s no longer about historically marginalized groups, but merely represent the ways we’re all unique and different from each other.

Given the sometimes dangerously misguided ways diversity and inclusion initiatives are understood and implemented in organizations, this post outlines the most common ways organizations are getting diversity wrong. I use research evidence to support the ways diversity management practices are not providing the positive workplace outcomes they often promise.

I’ll warn you now that the post won’t end with “5 easy steps to diversity and inclusion in the workplace” or “7 diversity and inclusion best practices you can implement today”. If it was this easy, organizations would not be struggling so much with discrimination and exclusion.

Three employees sit around a table discussing documents, representing corporate diversity and inclusion reflected in often superficial displays of visible gender and racial difference
Photograph by Sora Shimazaki

My hope is that this post helps convince you that diversity and inclusion initiatives alone are insufficient within a world marked by institutionalized and systemic injustice. We can’t change organizations with an hour-long training module but together, raising our consciousness and directing our collective efforts, we can change the world.

Related: Intersectionality in the Workplace: Creating Justice, Not Diversity

Organizational Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are often characterized in organizations as the strategies, policies, and practices that empower employees by appreciating and respecting what makes them different.

The key areas of diversity are usually assumed to be gender, race/ethnicity, religion, disability, and age. However, some strategies broaden ‘diversity’ to include occupation, educational background, personality, working styles, skills, and values and attitudes.

To understand why diversity is so broad, we need to trace corporate diversity and inclusion strategies back to their roots.

Where Diversity and Inclusion Comes From

In 1987, a report called Workforce 2000 was published in the United States.

The report anticipated the changing demographics of the American workforce and its implications for organizations. It predicted that while white male entrants would fall, women employees and employees of color would rise.

Academics and practitioners began to wonder how they could effectively ‘manage’ diversity in the wake of these trends.

In the three decades since, organizations developed and implemented a wide range of initiatives designed to best utilize their workforce diversity for improved performance.

Diversity management strategies have been said to boost innovation, productivity, and morale. Yet, the success of these initiatives in real-world organizational practice has been ambiguous, inconsistent, and contested.

Before the Workforce 2000 report was released, there were already in place many policies for ‘diversity and inclusion’.

Through the long and difficult struggles of the civil rights movement, governments and organizations installed the first affirmative action programs in the 1960s.

Affirmative action understood and sought to remedy the systems of power that have historically disadvantaged certain social groups in the workplace, such as people of color. These initiatives were expressly designed to be reparational.

As the United States Commission on Civil Rights defined, affirmative action was an effort:

… beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.

When diversity management emerged, it was as though the hard-won rights of the civil rights movement had been forgotten.

civil rights affirmative action blm
Photograph by Colin Lloyd

Diversity management repackaged affirmative action to make it more palatable for white people.

Where previous strategies and initiatives explicitly acknowledged historical and structural inequity, the term ‘diversity’ was in many ways less threatening.

Over time, organizations started expanding the definition of ‘diversity’ beyond the identifications that have been traditionally marginalized from organizations, such as race, gender, sexual identity/orientation, and disability.

Some practitioners now even praise how diversity is so broad, encompassing anything and everything like personality differences. When diversity is diluted like this, we can suddenly all be considered ‘diverse’ because we are all ‘different’ from one another.

Ironically, this use of diversity is lauded for being more ‘inclusive’, grossly misunderstanding the point of workplace inclusion.

Who does this inclusion actually benefit?

Diversity scholar Yvonne Benschop say it poignantly, diversity management has become so dominant in organizations because:

… “diversity” does not so powerfully appeal to our sense of justice and equality.

Diversity management has supplanted affirmative action, depoliticizing social change into the celebration of superficial differences that ultimately leaves unequal power structures intact.

Diversity and Inclusion on White Terms

Racial Capitalism

While overtly racist attitudes have become politically incorrect, we’re seeing more and more organizations outwardly celebrating their diversity, boasting about how their organizations are more creative, adaptable, and overall higher performing because of all the different-looking employees they have.

Legal scholar Nancy Leong observes how in this trend, people of color are often defined in terms of the social and economic value they provide to white people and institutions.

In her theory of racial capitalism (echoing Cedric Robinson’s theory by the same name), Leong describes how diversity management can become a way where employees’ racial identities are commodified and “pursued, captured, possessed, and used” by organizations.

Corporate diversity usually benefits white people and white institutions, treating visible racial difference as a commodity to be pursued and used
Photograph by DGT Portraits

For example, organizations may hire a token person of color in hopes of deflecting racial critique. Usually when an organization has experienced a high-profile racial scandal, they might appoint a senior manager of color as a way of ‘proving’ that they’re not racist.

Similarly, if an organization has been ousted for sexually hostile practices, they might seek to repair their reputation by appointing a female CEO to convince the public that they’re not sexist.

What we’ve seen in recent cases is that these tokenistic appointments almost never work out because the workplace structure and culture are intrinsically inhospitable. Diversity without justice is meaningless.

Corporate websites and brochures are also common sites for performative diversity.

Many companies will overrepresent the diversity of their employees in these documents. By displaying photographs of happy people of color, smiling women, exuberant people in wheelchairs, companies can use their bodies to present themselves as cosmopolitan, progressive, and inclusive, irrespective of their actual values and practices.

Diversity then becomes a superficial branding exercise where companies can sell themselves as harmonious and inclusive places, even while their marginalized employees suffer.

The Problem with Unconscious Bias Training

Unconscious bias is currently the most popular way to understand everyday sexism, racism, heterosexism, and ableism in the workplace.

Many organizations have adopted unconscious bias training, which is sometimes mandatory for all managers in certain companies. Unconscious bias training was quickly implemented by organizations since 2013 when police shootings of Black people first started to draw international attention.

Protests kneel on a bridge for Black Lives Matter, representing the public reckoning of racial injustice that is not captured in corporate diversity and inclusion practices
Photograph by Life Matters

Unconscious bias itself is believed to be an automatic cognitive process where our brains make instantaneous judgments without us noticing. Our biases are said to be informed by our background, cultural environment, and personal life experiences. We’re supposedly unaware of these views and opinions we harbor.

Training programs usually involve sitting a test to determine which unconscious biases you hold, followed by a discussion around how your biases would play out in the workplace. Some programs would have in-depth face-to-face activities while others may involve self-guided online modules.

Approximately half of midsize companies and nearly all Fortune 500 companies have implemented unconscious bias training of some form in the United States.

Despite its popularity, research has shown that unconscious bias training isn’t the magic bullet that some believe it to be.

Sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev looked at over 800 American companies and found that any positive effects of training rarely lasted beyond a day or two, and in some cases, they had the opposite effect and actually increased discrimination and hostility.

Five years after implementing compulsory diversity training, the researchers found that companies saw no increase in the numbers of minority employees, while certain groups (Asian Americans and African American women in particular) actually declined.

Dobbin and Kalev believe that some managers retaliate against what they see as corporate control. When unconscious bias training is made mandatory, managers push back and may actually behave in more sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist ways.

The uncomfortable and unspoken truth is that unconscious bias is the acceptable face of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and ableism.

Unconscious bias can be neatly addressed via a multiple-choice quiz and a discussion activity while participants don’t have to acknowledge shameful facts about structural and systemic injustice.

The “un” in unconscious bias does all the heavy-lifting here.

It allows people complicit in domination and oppression to assure themselves that they’re not really responsible because they weren’t intentional — or even conscious — when they were exerting harm. 

As management scholar Mike Noon puts it:

Part of the allure of the notion of unconscious bias is that it is not about blame.

In the video below, education scholar Shirley Anne Tate delivers the keynote speech at a Building the Anti-Racist Classroom (BARC) workshop, detailing her provocative critique of (un)conscious bias.

Rethinking Diversity and Inclusion

This post has traced the ways diversity and inclusion initiatives have supplanted previous hard-won affirmative action policies that sought reparations for colonialism.

Corporate diversity and inclusion practices can often reflect a collective amnesia of how sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism have historically marginalized certain groups of people. Strategies tend to imagine an equal playing field and broaden diversity to represent a superficial notion of ‘different’ people working happily (and profitably) together.

This watered-down version of diversity and inclusion means that organizations can profess to doing good while leaving prevailing structures and systems of injustice intact.

Organizations cannot develop meaningfully inclusive and just environments through an unconscious bias training module and a glossy brochure showing smiling ‘diverse’ employees.

There are many industry magazines out there with their “7 steps to a diverse and inclusive workplace” or “10 diversity and inclusion best practices”. Many of these propose sensible and well-intentioned ideas such as establishing a sense of belonging for employees, practicing ethical, empathetic leadership, fostering commitment, and seeing inclusion as ongoing (rather than one-off training).

Yet as capitalism is a fundamentally dehumanizing and exploitative system, diversity and inclusion initiatives can only go so far in for-profit companies.

Related: Intersectional Feminism under Capitalism: A Marxist Critique

Organizations that genuinely seek to develop inclusive and just environments must be aimed towards dismantling interlocking systems of oppression and exploitation.

Without addressing the core function of for-profit companies to exploit workers for profit, diversity and inclusion initiatives will likely fall the way of racial capitalism — where companies will treat marginalized people as objects to be possessed and used. Many of these people will be recruited to deflect critiques of institutionalized discrimination and left to suffer in hostile environments.

Organizations following the principles of intersectional feminism would desire justice, not diversity.

It would not see diversity as something they have but as who they are.

Related: 6 Practices For Meaningful Intersectional Feminist Allyship

Learn More

I discuss the problems with diversity management in more detail in my book, Redeeming Leadership: An Anti-Racist Feminist Intervention.

Shirley Anne Tate and Damien Page (2018) Whiteliness and institutional racism: Hiding behind (un)conscious bias. Ethics and Education, 13(1), 141–155. This article is possibly one of the most sophisticated sociological critiques of unconscious bias training and the ways it’s often used as an alibi against racism.

Sara Ahmed (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life

Yvonne Guerrier and Cornelia Wilson (2011). Representing diversity on UK company web sites. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 30(3), 183–195.

Featured image by Retha Ferguson

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