Posted: 28 Nov. 2016 05 min. read

Feeling left out?

Are diversity programs working for everyone?

Are some employee groups being left out through diversity efforts? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review would suggest that the drive to promote equality could be generating feelings of inequality, particularly for white males.

The article “Diversity policies rarely make companies fairer, and they feel threatening to white men” by Tessa Dover, Ph.D Candidate, Professor Brenda Major and Cheryl Kaiser, Ph.D, and underlying research “Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies” conducted by Professors Alexandra Kalev (University of California, Berkley), Frank Dobbin (Harvard University) and Erin Kelly (University of Minnesota), explores the notion that diversity policies and practices may be creating unintended consequences.

In essence what the article and underlying research question are the efficacy of diversity programs and their potential backlash.


The aim of this research was to review the efficacy of diversity programs. Specifically, the study focused on whether organisational accountability (affirmative action plans, diversity committees and full-time diversity staff) is more effective at improving diversity outcomes than targeting the behaviour of individuals through diversity training evaluations, networking or mentoring programs. Rather than an “either/or”, the research also sought to understand whether affirmative action oversight renders diversity programs more effective.


The researchers examine the effects of seven common diversity programs:

  1. Organisational Change: Structures of responsibility

       - Affirmative action plans
       - Diversity Committees
       - Diversity Managers

  2. Behavioural Change: Reducing bias through education and feedback

        - Diversity Training
        - Diversity evaluation and feedback for managers

  3. Treating social isolation: Networking and Mentoring

        - Networking programs
        - Mentoring

In collaboration with the Princeton Survey Research Centre, Prof Kalev and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of 708 establishments to assess changes in managerial composition after the adoption of each of seven diversity practices. That data covered the period 1971-2002. Using a fixed-effects analysis of the longitudinal data the researchers were able to account for an organisations unobserved characteristics that do not vary over time and that my affect diversity.


The findings indicated substantial variation in the effectiveness of diversity programs. Some programs increased managerial diversity across the board whereas others had meagre effects or positive effects for some groups but not for others. The most effective practices were those that established organisational responsibility. The least effective programs were those that attempt to tame managerial bias through education and feedback.

  1. Organisational Change: Structures of responsibility

    Unless there is a reason to change, employees tend to ignore newly announced company goals and continue to pursue old goals with old routines – they stick to the familiar.  Max Weber (1978) suggests that where diversity efforts are everyone’s responsibility, but no one’s primary responsibility, they are more likely to be decoupled from organisational goals.

    After employers set up affirmative action plans, the likelihood of promotion for white men in management declined 8%; while the likelihood of promotion for white women rose 9% and black men rose 4%.

    Creating a diversity committee increased the likelihood that white women became managers, across the period of the committees’ existence by 19%. The odds for black women rose 27% and the odds for a black man 12%.

    Employers who appointed full-time diversity staff also saw significant changes in the promotion opportunities for white women (11%), black women (13%) and black men (14%).

  2. Behavioural Change: Reducing bias through education and feedback

    Inequity can be traced to bias (conscious and unconscious) in managerial decisions during the employment lifecycle. These biases have an amplified impact when applied by managers in relation to decisions about recruitment, development and promotion. This insight is the reason why diversity programs commonly include information about biases.

    Some studies, however, reveal that diversity training may activate rather than reduce bias. Diversity training (in isolation) is followed by a 7% decline in the number of promotions for white women.

    Performance-based diversity evaluations are followed by a 6% rise in the likelihood of promotion for white women but an 8% decline for black men.a

  3. Treating social isolation: Networking and Mentoring

    Networking and mentoring programs designed to counter social isolation show modest effects on managerial diversity.

    Networking was followed by a rise in the promotion opportunities for white women and a decline in the odds for white and black men. In contrast mentoring showed a strong positive effect on the promotion opportunities for black women. These findings suggest that having personal guidance and support at work can facilitate career development for black women, whereas networking is more effective for white women.

    Diversity training, evaluation, networking and mentoring programs were more effective in companies which also had responsibility structures.  With networking, the responsibility structure interaction positively affects black men and with mentoring it positively affects black women. The overall pattern is striking and suggests that authority structures render other programs more effective.


For organisations wanting to ensure that they create the right environment and culture, they must ensure that any diversity initiative is supported by the right organisational structure and oversight. Trying to ‘fix’ managers or staff in isolation is likely to have the opposite effect on equality outcomes.

Companies that have several initiatives that are linked together and are owned by a senior individual will have the greatest impact on diversity efforts.

For more information, contact Cat Pinfold 

To read the full article, see

Kalev, A. Dobbin, F and Kelly, E 2006. “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies.” American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (August:589-617)


Meet our author

Cat Pinfold

Cat Pinfold

Client Manager, Risk Advisory

Catherine (Cat) is a Manager in our Risk Transformation Practice. She has 15 years of Human Capital experience across Financial Services and Manufacturing in some of Australia and New Zealand's largest firms.  She has worked across a broad range of Human Capital disciplines and change programmes.