At a think tank in Washington where I used to work, I once attended a one-day compulsory diversity training, during which the instructor requested everyone to identify themselves by age groups, sexual orientation and childhood socio-economic background. Seeing a coworker identify herself as a gay woman, another coworker who’d grown up outside of the U.S. expressed shock and dread. It was a case of a good intention creating negative emotions. For me, I resented having to sit through the training, when I could have worked and gone home earlier.
Despite damning evidence that shows mandatory diversity trainings don’t work or actually make things worse – a 2006 review of over 700 companies showed that trainings aimed at managers activated bias rather than reducing it – we keep doing it. From Wall Street headhunters to Harvard admissions offices, diversity is seen as a positive end in itself, yet it is one fraught with cultural baggage.