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The reason firms adopt diversity management programs is supposed to be that they need them—either because they employ mainly white men or because regulators require the programs. New research finds the opposite is true. “What we see here is that, paradoxically, it’s not the firms lacking diversity that adopt programs to promote diversity,” says Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University. “It’s the firms that are doing best in diversifying management that put into place diversity programs.”

Dobbin and colleagues examined a national sample of 816 firms from 1980 to 2002, and found that corporate culture, women in management, and industry norms do more to drive the adoption of diversity programs than does actual need. Companies tend not to respond to regulatory scrutiny or to a lack of racial or ethnic diversity in the workforce. What does lead them to adopt programs, such as diversity training, mentoring, and task forces, is a history of having embraced new social norms in the past, as evidenced by by their progressive work-family practices. Those firms also tend to promote women into management, who then advocate for further diversity.

Peer pressure is an alternative force. “Every firm wants to make sure it remains competitive for the best talent, and seeing what other firms do is a huge motivator for change,” says Caroline Simard, vice president of research and executive programs at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. But surprisingly, Dobbin found that external and internal pressures don’t reinforce each other. Only one or the other matters; a firm that already resisted adopting a popular industry program won’t be swayed by higher numbers of female managers.

“I think we can now understand why the economy begins to look like it’s dividing into firms that are very pro-diversity and firms that just never seem to get out of a rut,” says Dobbin. “One of the reasons is that if you’ve made some progress, there’s support for further progress.”

Another problem is that although white women managers are promoting diversity programs, they often promote the wrong ones. Employers spend the most money on one program—diversity training—that has been shown by several studies not to work. Mentoring is more effective, but white women managers tend not to institute it. Minority managers might also champion diversity program adoption, but the researchers couldn’t tell, because there still aren’t enough minorities in management.

“I think we would probably be in a better place if all these firms were required to take some of the steps we know are effective at reducing inequality,” says Dobbin. “It would be useful if the federal government would take a clearer stand on what policies and programs firms need to put into place.”

Frank Dobbin, Soohan Kim, and Alexandra Kalev, “You Can’t Always Get What You Need: Organizational Determinants of Diversity Programs,” American Sociological Review, 76, 2011.

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