Dramatic findings of a new study published in the American Sociological Review go against the popular claim that anti-discrimination regulation is no longer needed because diversity programs have gained a life of their own. The study provides hard evidence that affirmative action programs, and other “responsibility structures”, are the most effective approach companies can take to improve management diversity.
The study, “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies,” was authored by a team of sociologists headed by Frank Dobbin of Harvard University with Alexandra Kalev of the University of California at Berkeley and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota. The purpose of the study was to find out how effective corporate diversity and affirmative action initiatives are in improving management diversity. There are assumptions that these programs are effective, but little hard evidence to prove it.
The study examined the effects of seven common diversity programs on the representation of white men, white women, black women, and black men in the management ranks of private sector firms based on a review of 708 private-sector establishments’ EEO-1 reports from 1971 – 2002. The authors also surveyed a sample of these businesses on the history of their personnel and diversity programs. The specific programs studied were: (1) affirmative action plans; (2) diversity committees and task forces; (3) diversity managers; (4) diversity training); (5) diversity evaluations for managers; (6) networking programs; and (7) mentoring programs.
Findings of the Study
The most effective programs for improving management diversity were “responsibility structures,” such as affirmative action plans, diversity committees, and diversity staff positions. The least effective was diversity training and diversity evaluations. Mentoring and social networking programs produced only modest positive effects in improving management diversity.
1. “Responsibility Structures” Are The Most Effective In Improving Management Diversity
Structures establishing responsibility (affirmative action plans, diversity committees, and diversity staff positions) were followed by significant increases in managerial diversity for white women, black women and black men. After employers set up affirmative action plans, the odds for white men in management declined by 8 percent; the odds for white women rose by 9 percent; and the odds for black men rose by 4 percent. Creating a diversity committee increased the odds for white women by 19 percent. The odds for black women rose 27 percent, and the odds for black men rose 12 percent. Employers who appointed full-time diversity staff also saw significant increase in the odds for white women (11 percent), black women (13 percent) and black men (14 percent) in management.
The common element of these three strategies is that they all share a focus on responsibility. An organization with any one of these has assigned responsibility for progress to a person or group – an affirmative action officer, a diversity manager or department, or a committee or task force. That person or group monitors progress regularly. Affirmative action officers also write explicit annual goals for progress, as do some staffers and committees.
The authors also found that responsibility structures also make training, performance evaluations, networking, and mentoring programs more effective. Federal affirmative action requirements, which typically lead to assignment of responsibility for compliance, also catalyze certain programs.
2. Diversity Training and Diversity Evaluations are Least Effective in Improving Managerial Diversity
Diversity training and diversity evaluations, which target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback, were not followed by increases in diversity and show negative effects. Diversity training was followed by a 7 percent decline in the odds for black women. Diversity evaluations were followed by a 6 percent rise in the odds for white women, but an 8 percent decline in the odds for black men. However, diversity training and diversity evaluations may show “modest positive effects” when responsibility structures are also in place and among federal contractors.
3. Mentoring and Networking Produced Modest Changes in Improving Managerial Diversity
Mentoring and Networking programs designed to counter the social isolation of women and minorities were followed by only modest changes. Networking was followed by a rise in the odds for white women and a decline in the odds for white men and black men. In contrast, mentoring programs showed a strong positive effect on the odds for black women. These findings suggest that having personal guidance and support at work can facilitate career developments for black women, whereas networking is more effective for white women.
Discussion of the Findings
The findings support earlier research that concludes executives must appoint specialists and give them authority to achieve specialized goals. While corporate affirmative action practitioners may find this conclusion somewhat obvious, today’s popular diversity programs often focus on changing individuals as opposed to structures. The underlying belief of these diversity programs is that most management problems are problems of motivation rather than structure. Diversity training and feedback, as well as networking and mentoring programs, are designed to “fix” a lack of specific human and social capital in individual workers. The study points out that these programs are not nearly as effective as affirmative action and other responsibility structures in improving management diversity.
Implications for DCI Clients
The study provides hard evidence that affirmative action programs, and other responsibility structures, are the most effective approach companies can take to improve management diversity. These findings should help companies in allocating resources towards those programs that yield the most positive results.
Citation: Kalev, Alexandra, Frank Dobbin and Erin Kelly. “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” American Sociological Review 71(4): 589-617.
October 12, 2006