A Review of
Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies
The Most Effective Corporate Diversity Practices Establish Organizational Responsibility for Diversity
Establishing organizational responsibility for diversity leads to broader increases in managerial diversity than do training, evaluation, mentoring and networking programs.
Over the past several decades, there has been an increase in efforts to diversify the American corporate workforce. In 2018, the employment search engine Indeed saw an 18% increase in diversity and inclusion job postings from the previous year, and a 2017 report indicated that about $8 billion is spent annually on diversity training. Despite this dedication of resources, do these initiatives increase workplace diversity, particularly at the managerial level? In the first systematic analysis of the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies, researchers Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin L. Kelly examined the effects of diversity programs on the representation of white women, Black women, and Black men in management positions within private-sector businesses.
The researchers assessed data from federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) reports, which detail companies’ annual employment by race, ethnicity and gender. They examined whether, and to what extent, corporate personnel and diversity programs increase diversity at the managerial level. Their main findings are clear: establishing responsibility for diversity does the most to increase the share of white women, Black women, and Black men in management. This includes developing affirmative action plans, appointing staff members focused on diversity, creating diversity offices, and launching diversity task forces and committees. They found that networking and mentoring programs are less promising, while diversity training and evaluation programs are least effective. However, these less effective interventions were found to be more effective in workplaces with responsibility structures in place, suggesting that organizations should make structural changes before attempting to implement diversity initiatives that target bias or social isolation.
The researchers have focused much of their academic careers on diversity in the workplace. Dr. Alexandra Kalev is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, where she investigates how workplace structures affect the careers of minoritized and racialized groups. Dr. Frank Dobbin is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, where he studies the effects of employer policies on workplace diversity. Dr. Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she examines how employer policies impact organizational culture, workers, and families.
Methods and Findings
Using Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) reports from 1971-2002, the researchers conducted a longitudinal survey of diversity practices in 708 private-sector businesses. They examined racial and gender changes in management after the implementation of seven types of diversity programs: affirmative action plans, diversity committees, diversity training, mentoring programs, networking programs, full-time diversity staff, and diversity evaluations. These programs fall into three broad categories: organizational responsibility, behavioral change, and treating social isolation.
They completed over 800 phone interviews to find out whether or not the company had ever used any of the seven diversity programs, when programs were implemented, and whether programs had ended. The researchers used this information to study the representation of white men, white women, Black men, or Black women in management. The study controlled for factors that might affect management diversity, such as the legal environment, organizational structures, top management composition, and labor market and economic environment.
The study found that the practices most effective at increasing managerial diversity are those that establish organizational responsibility for diversity.
- Creating affirmative action plans increased the proportion of white women in management by about 8% and Black men in management by 4%.
- Establishing diversity committees increased the proportion of white women in management by 14%, Black women by almost 30%, and Black men by 10%
- Appointing full-time diversity staff increased the proportion of white women in management by 9%, and Black women and men by 14%
Implementing networking and mentoring programs showed modest effects on managerial diversity.
- Adopting a networking program increased the proportion of white women in management by 6.7%, but decreased the proportion of Black men in management by 10%
- Adopting a mentoring program increased the proportion of Black women in management by about 24%
Training and feedback focused on managerial stereotyping had virtually no effect on managerial diversity.
- Instituting diversity trainings led to a decrease in the proportion of Black women in management by 6%
- Instituting diversity evaluations decreased the proportion of Black men in management by 8%
The authors also examined how the sheer number of diversity programs affects the likelihood of white women, Black men, and Black women being in management.
- A higher number of diversity programs matters more for white women than for any other group under study.
- For Black women, the existence of one or two diversity programs was no different than having none—three made the most difference.
- For Black men, however, there was no significant difference between having all of the programs and no programs at all.
The authors conclude that the most effective way to increase the share of white women, Black women, and Black men in management is to implement organizational responsibility for diversity through affirmative action plans, diversity committees, and diversity positions. While inequality in management is likely due to bias towards and isolation of racialized groups, the best way to remedy these problems is through workplace structural change.
In line with previous research, the researchers found that diversity programs benefit white women most, followed by Black women. Specifically, none of the diversity programs assessed in this study showed a negative effect on white women, but three diversity programs showed negative effects on Black men and women. These findings seem to underscore the importance of using intersectionality to address issues of management diversity.
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