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Discrimination impacts the lives of many individuals, primarily those who belong to marginalized groups in our society (see our glossary for a definition of terms such as “discrimination” and “marginalized groups”). Support for this claim comes from survey research measuring self-reports of discrimination and field experiments assessing discriminatory behaviors in natural settings. Visit this page for a more detailed presentation of studies showing that discrimination is a persisting problem in our society.
Numerous researchers and practitioners have proposed initiatives to reduce discrimination. Unfortunately, most of these initiatives are not evaluated, and we thus don’t know if they lead to a reduction in discrimination. Among the few initiatives that have been evaluated, many turn out to be ineffective and some have been shown to be counterproductive. For example, Dobbin and Kalev (2016) showed that companies that implemented mandatory diversity training had 9% fewer black women in management positions five years later. See this page for a description of different anti-discrimination initiatives and their effectiveness (or lack thereof).
In light of empirical findings, the role of implicit bias has recently been re-evaluated. Implicit bias is uncorrelated with behavior. There is not a single study showing that people’s implicit bias has a causal impact on behavior. Just as there is not a single study showing that a training-induced or experimentally-induced shift in implicit bias leads to a subsequent shift in behavior. The effect of training programs designed to change people’s implicit bias generally do not last longer than a day. Framing discrimination in terms of implicit rather than explicit bias has numerous negative effects. See this page for a discussion of the recent scientific literature on implicit bias.
Should our goal be to reduce discriminatory behaviors or promote inclusive behaviors? It depends on the setting, but businesses and universities are now focusing increasingly on inclusion. For many years, the question was “How do we make sure that individuals from marginalized groups obtain access?” (reducing discrimination to improve recruitment). Nowadays, the focus is more on “How do we make sure that individuals from marginalized groups don’t leave?” (promoting inclusion to increase retention). Reducing discrimination means getting people to no longer do something that they are currently doing, whereas promoting inclusion means getting people to do something that they are currently not doing. See this page for more information.
Just like other programs, anti-discrimination/pro-inclusion initiatives can be rigorously evaluated. The gold standard for evaluation is a randomized controlled trial where so-called “units” (e.g., individuals, classrooms, branches, departments, factories) are randomly assigned to experimental conditions: half are assigned to the intervention condition, half to the control condition. The effectiveness of the intervention is evaluated by collecting individuals’ responses to a climate survey or by measuring “hard” outcomes such as grades, disciplinary actions (in schools), number of sick days, turn-over, physical and mental health, as well as number of individuals belonging to marginalized groups in leadership positions. To read a description of various designs to test pro-diversity initiatives click here.
A key ingredient to a successful anti-discrimination/pro-inclusion initiative is a systematic approach, which involves identifying four elements: (1) The “target behavior”: Which behavior(s) do we want people to adopt? (2) The “target audience”: Whose behaviors are we trying to change? (3) The “barriers”: What currently prevents members of the target audience from adopting the target behavior(s)? (4) The “benefits”: What positive consequences will members of the target audience experience if they engage in the target behavior(s)? For more information on a systematic approach to behavior change click on this link.
Another key ingredient to a successful anti-discrimination/pro-inclusion initiative is the use of “modern” behavior change strategies. Providing information and raising awareness are usually ineffective by themselves. Modern behavior change strategies cause individuals to alter specific ways they make sense of themselves or social situations. The strategies leverage three basic motivations: need to understand, need for self-integrity, and need to belong. Above all, modern behavior change strategies have been shown to be effective in rigorous scientific evaluations (which are described here).
So what works? Social norms-based initiatives seem to be particularly effective. In these initiatives, it is made salient that being inclusive is a social norm: Inclusion is one of the organization’s core values, the leadership makes visible efforts to remove institutional barriers, there is wide support for the existing pro-diversity measures, and most peers enjoy the diversity in the organization. Other promising initiatives involve making salient the benefits of behaving inclusively, pointing out logical inconsistencies, or providing individuals with concrete strategies to overcome judgmental biases. For more information on effective initiatives, view this page.