Moving beyond D.E.I. Education in the Workplace

Public Administration Research Helps Show How Public and Nonprofit Organizations Can Advance Workplace Equity in an Era of D.E.I. Education Bans

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Author: Katherine Jurak, Kent State University

D.E.I. Education in the Workplace

The Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Acts, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Titles VII, and IX: the work of political activists in the twentieth century led to the legal protection of American workers against policies and behaviors that discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Additionally, in 2023 “61% [of American workers] said that their organization has policies that ensure fairness in hiring, pay or promotions, and 52% say they have trainings or meetings on DEI at work” (Minkin, 2023).

However, despite these actions, discrimination remains embedded in the workplace: 61% of American workers report that they had experienced or witnessed discrimination at work (Schmidt, 2022), female employees only made 83.7% of the pay of their male counterparts (U.S. Department of Labor, 2023), and unemployment rates for people of color remained higher than the rates of unemployed white workers (Economic Policy Institute, 2023).

It can be easy for managers to look at these numbers and despair. After all, if widespread education and the threat of legal action haven’t been able to eradicate workplace discrimination, what more can we do?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

D.E.I. Education Initiatives

Federal law does a good job of reducing intentional workplace discrimination (also known as first-generation discrimination). Unintentional discrimination (second-generation discrimination), on the other hand, is not as easy to prosecute under federal law because – although it is a contributing cause to the unequal hiring, advancement, tenure, and happiness of workers from minority communities – it is not often accompanied by clear evidence that shows a pattern of exclusion (Sturm, 2001). For example, a member of the deaf community who was not hired for a text-based customer support role because the interviewer found them to be hard to understand has a clear case for employment discrimination. If a member of the deaf community already working in that role is denied a promotion because they do not display leadership by speaking up in meetings, however, that is more likely to be seen as an honest mistake on the part of a manager (and thus not a clear case for an employment discrimination lawsuit) who does not understand that some members of the deaf community find large meetings difficult to participate in.

Amid the recent political push to ban Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D.E.I.) training at federal and state entities and organizations that receive a majority of their funding from federal grants, it’s important to note that D.E.I. education is not the only way to combat second-generation bias in the workplace. It may not even be the most effective method. Williamson & Foley (2018) write that:

Academic research finds that the effectiveness of unconscious bias training is still largely unknown (Paluck and Green 2009; Price et al. 2005), and some studies suggest it may even backfire. In extreme cases, telling people to resist their biases has been shown to have the opposite effect and entrenches stereotypes (Apfelbaum et al. 2008). Similarly, other research finds that spreading messages that biases are involuntary and widespread effectively normalises the bias, resulting in more prejudice, not less (Duguid and Thomas-Hunt, 2015).

D.E.I education initiatives aim to curb bias through individual action. If – due to political action or a lack of funding or expertise – they are not tools available to managers of public and nonprofit organizations, or if they are simply not proving effective enough, then we need to look beyond them, at creating workplace structures that support workers from minority communities.

Nnawulezi & Vassell (2023) recommend supporting workers from minority communities by creating intentional social networks and formal mentoring networks within the workplace. It’s no secret that single-race white Americans are overrepresented in leadership roles, or that leadership training is often informal. Coupled with the fact that less than 10% of single-race white Americans say that they have “a lot in common with people who are black, Asian, or American Indian” (Parker, Menasce Horowicz, Morin, & Hugo Lopez, 2015), this can lead to junior single-race white workers receiving benefits that are not illegal, but also not as readily available to workers from minority communities. Formal structures like learning lunch groups and well-advertised mentorship opportunities can help decrease this gap.

Even seemingly small things like changing the frequency of performance reviews can make a difference when it comes to helping all our employees thrive. Reynolds Lewis (2015, in Carter 2020) and the British Psychological Society (2015, in Carter 2020) find that “employees of color are expected to repeatedly prove their capabilities while white employees are more likely to be evaluated on their expected potential.” Shorter, more frequent performance reviews (once a month as opposed to once every six months or once every year) can have an outsized benefit for employees of color even when the reviewer retains their unconscious bias, as the employee will be able to implement suggestions into their work more quickly to showcase their capabilities.

If you find yourself thinking that these initiatives would benefit more than just workers from minority communities, you’re not alone. A growing number of decision-makers in all types of organizations are finding that analyzing their workplace structures through a D.E.I. lens can benefit their entire organization, not just those from historically marginalized communities.

D.E.I. education was an easy entry point to start combatting unconscious bias; it’s high time we did more to reap the benefits that come from creating truly inclusive and supportive workplaces.

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Carter, E. R. (2020, June 22). Restructure your organization to actually advance racial justice. Harvard Business Review.

Economic Policy Institute. (2023, November). State unemployment by race and ethnicity. Economic Policy Institute.

Minkin, R. (2023, May 17). Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace. Pew Research Center.

Nnawulezi, N. & Vassell, A. (2023, February). The overrepresentation of white women’s leadership in the movement to end gender-based violence. VAWnet.

Parker, K., Menasce Horowicz, J., Morin, R., & Hugo Lopez, M. (2015, June 11). Chapter 5: race and social connections — Friends, family and neighborhoods. Pew Research Center.

Schmidt, C. (2022, March 2). 6 statistics to better understand discrimination in the workplace. Nasdaq.

Sturm, S. (2001). Second generation employment discrimination: A structural approach. Columbia Law Review, 101(3), 458-568.

U.S. Department of Labor (2023, March 14). Equal pay day 2023: Department of labor initiatives seek to close gender, racial wage gap, increase equity in federal programs. U.S. Department of Labor.,difference%20of%20%2410%2C000%20per%20year

Williamson, S. & Foley, M. (2018, March 11). Unconscious bias training: The silver bullet for gender equity? Australian Journal of Public Information.

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