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Well-run companies expect good returns on their spending, and leaders who continue to support initiatives that don’t produce results usually find themselves demoted or fired. So why have the billions of dollars that many organizations have spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts produced so little substantive progress toward greater diversity?
Numerous reports indicate that the percentage of Black people in the leadership ranks of large U.S. companies hovers at just above 3%.1 This percentage remains persistently low despite large investments in diversity and inclusion training, the creation of offices of diversity and inclusion, and other companywide initiatives.2 Studies now indicate that DEI training rarely improves an organization’s record of hiring or promoting Black people.3 Companies that bemoan a dearth of qualified Black candidates for leadership roles rarely consider that the hiring process itself may disqualify potential applicants of color.4
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How Dynamic Conservatism Leads to Diversity Dodges
Aware of the ways in which organizations defend themselves against change that threatens their social structures, philosopher and social theorist Donald Schön noted that organizations will “fight like mad to stay the same.”5 Schön introduced the concept of dynamic conservatism to explain seemingly irrational responses by organizations to change and uncertainty, noting that great ideas that can reshape an industry or organization are almost always resisted because they upset the social hierarchy within the system. Systems thinker Russell Ackoff, a friend and colleague of Schön’s, was fond of saying that managers in organizations were rewarded for maintaining the status quo.
Schön further hypothesized that organizations resist change in proportion to its magnitude. Thus, it can be predicted that an organization that undertakes a major change, like hiring many more Black executives, will energetically resist those efforts with multiple defenses. Schön’s concept of dynamic conservatism argues that organizations make token changes in order to ward off substantive ones. This argument is especially relevant today — and the basis of the dodges that we delineate below. Here we seek to show how dynamic conservatism manifests by examining four ways that organizations avoid making substantive improvements or commitments to executive diversity — the recruitment, retention, mentoring, career development, pay equity, and promotion of Black people in senior positions.
Four Diversity Dodges
Dodge No. 1: Training that changes little.
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1. “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration,” Coqual, December 2019.
2. T. Kochan, K. Bezrukova, R. Ely, et al., “The Effects of Diversity on Business Performance: Report of the Diversity Research Network,” Human Resource Management 42, no. 1 (March 2003): 3-21.
3. E.L. Paluck and D.P. Green, “Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice,” The Annual Review of Psychology 60 (January 2009): 339-367; F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, “Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia,” Anthropology Now 10, no. 2 (May 2018): 48-55; and R. Dobbin and A. Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 7/8 (July-August 2016): 52-60.
4. E. Chun, “Debunking Myths in Hiring Diverse Faculty,” Racism Review, Oct. 29, 2016, www.racismreview.com.
5. The Reith Lectures With Donald Schön, episode 2, “Change and Industrial Society: Dynamic Conservatism,” recorded Nov. 22, 1970, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk, (transcript).
6. Paluck and Green, “Prejudice Reduction”; Dobbin and Kalev, “Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work?”; and Dobbin and Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail.”
7. T.S. Paikeday, H. Sachar, and A. Stuart, “A Leader’s Guide: Finding and Keeping Your Next Chief Diversity Officer,” PDF file (Russell Reynolds Associates, March 2019), www.russellreynolds.com.
12. E. Weise and J. Guynn, “Black and Hispanic Computer Scientists Have Degrees From Top Universities, but Don’t Get Hired in Tech,” USA Today, July 20, 2020, www.usatoday.com; and E. Moore, “Four Common Diversity Myths Debunked,” Glassdoor, Feb. 1, 2017, www.glassdoor.com.