Diversity training? Or gender stereotyping?

Image: ScoRDS via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For the first time in its history, the City Council in my hometown of Austin, Texas is run by a female majority. This important milestone should be cause for celebration. Instead, Austin was embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that the city manager’s office had brought in experts to help staffers “cope” with this new reality.

Consultants from Florida provided a two-hour training session to explain how new approaches would be needed to present issues before the council now that women are in charge. Staffers were told that men and women do not process information in the same way. Nor do they care about the same things: men are interested in the financial bottom line, while women want to know how various issues impact the community, families, and children. Women also ask a lot more questions than men do, and take more time reaching a decision.

The staffers at the event (most of whom were women) were encouraged to adopt a gender-appropriate repertoire as soon as possible because more women political leaders are inevitable, thanks to the inspiration of Hillary Clinton.

This egregious stereotyping of women leaders led to a barrage of embarrassing press coverage. Consequently, the City Manager suspended the person responsible for arranging the training session.

But diversity trainings similar to the one in Austin have become ubiquitous throughout the corporate and nonprofit worlds. It is one of several “diversity management programs” that organizations first implemented in the 1980s when Affirmative Action came under attack. The theory behind these programs is that if managers and coworkers develop greater awareness of the ways women and minority men are “different” from white men, they will shed their personal biases against members of these groups, thus increasing diversity at every level.

Research has demonstrated that diversity training is ineffective at increasing the number of women and minority men in management positions. Nevertheless, it remains hugely popular. In a recent study of women geoscientists in the oil and gas industry, my colleagues, Kristine Kilanski and Chandra Muller, and I found a great deal of enthusiasm for gender diversity training programs even though they promote harmful gender stereotypes. One woman we interviewed was thrilled that her company didn’t “sweep gender differences under the carpet” but confronted the “fact” that men and women have different cultures and speak different languages. She was grateful to learn that men’s perception of teamwork is hierarchical, while women “have a more lateral culture; the idea of teamwork is everyone pitching in an opinion.” This gender difference, she said, explains why women are often upbraided as “unreliable or pushy” when they offer an opinion that differs from men: “then she is not following orders, meaning she is not a team player.”

In other words, diversity training taught her that to avoid being seen as unreliable or pushy, a woman in a male dominated workplace should not offer an opinion but instead follow orders. With advice like this, it is no wonder that diversity training is ineffective in increasing women’s representation in leadership positions.

Diversity training not only reinforces gender stereotypes, it teaches men and women that they have personality differences that suit them to different roles in the organizational hierarchy. In one case, a senior geophysicist explained that after taking a company sponsored Myers-Briggs test, she learned that supporting others is what she truly wants and needs to thrive and that she lacks the “personality” to be a leader. In her case, diversity training provided a justification for why men monopolize the top positions in the corporation, and why women with their “soft skills” are men’s ideal “supporters.”

Diversity training sessions are often an embarrassment, but they do not have to be that way. Imagine if Austin had hired consultants to teach staffers to spot and respond to gender stereotypes, and to help them to develop a deeper understanding of how stereotypes bolster privilege and exclusion. Instead of teaching men and women to accept the “facts” of gender differences, training sessions could focus on how to promote gender equality. Now that would be worth celebrating.

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