Everyone you know would probably agree with this statement: Racism and discrimination are wrong, and diversity is important.

Then, why is it that even in 2020, there are still many inequities in the workplace when it comes to race and gender? Your organization probably has a statement about valuing diversity in your recruitment materials and loves to highlight the diverse faces who have made it to the upper levels. You are preaching and practicing diversity management, implementing training on implicit bias, and on the lookout for microaggressions or microinequities.

Diversity Management, Implicit Bias and Microaggressions: The Problem

Here’s why your well-intentioned efforts are not making a real difference: Research demonstrates that all three of those popular approaches to addressing workplace diversity are deeply flawed.

First, diversity management sweeps away previous ideas about fairness or equity that affirmative action and equal opportunity initiatives were based on to position diversity as a strategic business imperative. It is true that diversity can have strategic benefits if organizations are prepared to capitalize on it, but this approach defines “diversity” so broadly that it can ignore real inequalities. Research shows that this approach confuses employees about what diversity actually means, making some think that working from home or wearing flip flops to the office is “diversity.”

Implicit bias is an unconscious and primarily negative response toward people we don’t know well. It is a more palatable approach in diversity training, because instructors can claim that it’s universal and innocent. It is true that everyone has implicit bias, but it always works in favor of the dominant group. Like diversity management, this approach erases the ideas of racism and sexism from diversity training. Research shows that the focus on individual implicit bias focuses on the symptom, camouflaging rather than illuminating the structural aspects of prejudice.

Microaggressions are everyday unfair and unkind treatment toward minorities. Maybe you read about microaggressions and even facilitated a book discussion on the topic. It is true that microaggressions are harmful and reflect interpersonal power differences, but they do not occur in a vacuum. Research shows that microaggressions are a tactic for defending white privilege in organizations.

These approaches — diversity management, implicit bias awareness and microaggression discussions — focus on individual rather than structural racism and discrimination and both deny and rely on white privilege and white ignorance. If these terms are unfamiliar or make you feel defensive, Peggy McIntosh’s well known 1989 essay may be useful. Like your co-workers, you probably didn’t learn all the facts about colonialism, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and racism in school. You can do something about it now.

A Better Approach

Experts suggest that a more effective approach to fostering real diversity and plurality in the workplace has several steps:

  1. Clarify the definition of diversity, making sure that it doesn’t forget groups who have historically been marginalized and denied equal access to resources.
  2. Ask each person to take responsibility for developing his or her own racial self-awareness, understanding the real harms of racism.
  3. Train leaders to more effectively handle diversity tensions within their teams and to treat all co-workers with respect and kindness; after all, they set the example.
  4. Promote an organizational approach that encourages accountability for impact rather than simply intentions.

Overall, what our organizations need is appreciation for heterogeneity, a more nuanced understanding of what discrimination and harm look like, and an organizational commitment to dismantling structural inequality.