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By Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev


The Montréal Review, March 2023



Complacency had set in in diversity management. When the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in the summer of 2020 executives rushed to inspect their diversity numbers. Many were surprised to find that progress on diversifying their ranks had slowed decades before. Looking at national data shows the same picture: There was almost no change in the share of white women and Black and Latinx men and women who are managers since the late 1980s till today. Asian-American increased but much less than they should given their high education rate. Lots of talk about diversity everywhere, little to show for it. As Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments, put it, “In business we set targets on everything. Only in the area of diversity have I seen CEOs chronically say, ‘We’re working on it.’” 

Companies across America are now taking it to the next level. They have renewed their commitment to opening opportunity to women and people of color, have set goals for diversifying professional and management jobs, with target dates of 2025 or 2030, and began to post data on their workforces. But are these goals attainable if companies continue to use popular strategies for recruiting and promoting women and people of color? Our research says no. And it offers a better way.

In our research, using data from over 800 companies with 8 million workers across 40 years, we have assessed which kinds of diversity programs yield results reliably. We have also discovered what doesn’t work. Programs that target manager and worker bias mostly backfire by alienating the very people who might be able to change the workplace. Thus anti-bias training often alienates white men in positions of power. HR rules and regulations, anger managers, who easily circumvent them. Grievance systems spark retaliation against people who file complaints, leading to higher turnover. The quantitative data are clear: instead of boosting diversity, these popular interventions make it harder for women and people of color to rise to the jobs that have been hardest to diversify: management jobs.

Liverpool Street Train Station 8.48am by Ed Gray | edgrayart.com

So, what would put more companies on track to make good on the promises they made in 2020? Our research offers practical, low-cost solutions that are relatively easy to implement. The key to understanding what blocks diversity is to look carefully at how companies' career systems work. Routine recruitment, mentoring, training, and work-life solutions are often closed off to entire groups, without anyone even noticing. We call it systemic bias. And we know how to change it. How to open career systems to all.

College recruitment commonly operates through alumni networks, targeting the schools that current managers – most of whom are white men -- attended. A manager on a recruitment team will hire a graduate from his alma mater, who was on the same teams or in the same clubs. That new hire is often white. Open recruitment systems can cast a wider net, they can be set up to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as current managers’ alma maters. Firms with open recruitment systems that target schools and professional associations serving Black, Latino, and Native Americans see marked increases in management diversity.

Mentoring is a key to career success, but many firms don’t give all workers the chance to work with mentors. Where mentor matching is informal, white men are most likely to get mentoring. An Asian American woman might not be invited on an impromptu visit to the local pub, where a key piece of business intel or a professional tip is shared over hot dogs and beers. When firms do create formal mentoring systems, they are often restrictive, offering mentors only to “high potential” employees who already have someone looking out for them. An open mentoring program that invites all employees to sign up and matches mentors by interest can, in contrast, give access to more employees who seek mentorship. Such programs boost promotions to managements and retention rates dramatically. 

Mile End Underground Station Mile End Road (2014) by Ed Gray | edgrayart.com

Training is a third important part of the career system. On-the-job training is often informal, as when a supervisor shows a cashier how to use the scheduling system or do the payroll. White men, our research shows, are most often the beneficiaries of informal training. Formal training programs that are open to everyone can open access to other groups. These should have prerequisites that don't leave some groups behind. An investment bank, for instance, that requires experience with institutional investors that black men seldom get, excludes most of them from training. Retailers that condition training on full time service for at least one year, put women who’ve taken maternity leaves at a distinct disadvantage. Our analyses show that open training programs with fewer or better calibrated eligibility thresholds lead to higher number of women and people of color in management. 

Work-life supports are often offered only to selected few, leaving out those that need them most. The CEO’s right-hand man may get whatever leave time, and schedule flexibility, he needs when he has a newborn. But a Latinx woman in a frontline position may not be so lucky. Formal flexibility, leave, and childcare programs open to all employees send the message that the company has your back when you have a work-life challenge. Black, Latino, and Asian American women, and men, see gains when companies offer work life supports, because they are more likely to be in highly inflexible jobs and more often need to work harder to prove their talent and gain visibility – to stay longer hours, be available for any request – making the work-life juggle even harder. 

How can firms make sure all these programs are in place, and are updated when a pandemic, recession, or hurricane upends things? How can they make sure they are not going to be surprised by the numbers again? Best way is by creating a diversity task force composed of unit leaders from across the business who look at the workforce data, identify bottlenecks in career systems, and devise new remedies to bring back to their units to put into place. Our analyses show that this is the single most effective strategy for promoting workforce diversity. If companies want to make good on the pledges they made over the last two years, to build workforces that look more like the borader population, that is the place to start.

Diversifying the managerial ranks is not the only problem firms need to solve, but it signals that the company welcomes and retains workers from all backgrounds, and that good jobs throughout the company are open to all.


Frank Dobbin is Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. He is the author of Inventing Equal Opportunity and coeditor, with Beth Simmons and Geoffrey Garrett, of The Global Diffusion of Markets and Democracy.

Alexandra Kalev is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. Her award-winning paper “Cracking the Glass Cages?” shows how reducing segregation helps women and people of color to display their talents and move into management.


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