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How Diversity Messaging Can Undermine Women in the Workplace

Mar 15 2019

In recent years, organizations have begun taking a more proactive stance toward increasing diversity. To this end, they employ a variety of efforts often aimed at boosting the representation of women and racial minorities, including developing training programs, changing hiring and evaluation practices, and adding more inclusive language to their mission statements.

photo of Dr. Martin
Dr. Ashley Martin

In designing such initiatives, one challenge that companies face is finding a way to talk about group differences without justifying inequality or reinforcing sexist or racist stereotypes. Many programs, which are often well-intentioned, approach diversity with a “one size fits all” mindset, assuming that strategies that have been successful in reducing bias against some groups will work equally well for others. Ongoing research by Assistant Professor of Organizational Development Ashley Martin shows how current approaches to inequality, which were designed to combat racial prejudice, may in fact be undermining women’s advancement in the workplace. 

Martin, who recently spoke at the Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows lunch, has spent the past few years conducting experiments on the effects of what she refers to as “diversity ideologies,” or beliefs and practices on how to best approach group differences to foster intergroup inclusion. She differentiates between “blindness” approaches, which contend that focusing on differences between groups results in unnecessary tension and undermines social cooperation, and “awareness” approaches, which argue that acknowledging and embracing group differences is necessary for creating an equal and cooperative society.

Her work builds upon past research on interracial relations, which shows that under the right circumstances, awareness approaches can reduce bias against racial minorities. As a result, “color-blind” approaches to inequality, which downplay or ignore racial differences, have gradually been replaced with those which emphasize and embrace the unique qualities and backgrounds of people from underrepresented groups. Martin points out that companies are more likely now to use an awareness approach, and as an example points to a recent diversity statement from Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook: “We believe in equality for everyone, regardless of race, age, gender...We celebrate their differences.”

Though awareness approaches initially were developed and implemented as a strategy to improve race relations, this ideology is often transposed onto other groups, such as women. Many assume emphasizing women’s unique perspectives and skills is one way to raise their status in the workplace. Martin finds this is not necessarily the case. Though her research corroborates the efficacy of race-awareness strategies as a mechanism for reducing prejudice, she finds that policies and practices drawing attention to differences between men and women may in fact increase stereotyping and bias. 

In a series of online survey experiments, Martin demonstrates this effect in a variety of contexts. First, she establishes that men who are more aware of gender differences are also more likely to believe that society is fair, and that gender discrimination is no longer a problem. She then shows how people’s beliefs about gender inequality can be changed, finding that when men are asked to reflect upon gender differences, they are more likely to exhibit prejudice and to perceive gender inequality is justified. In both studies she finds the opposite effect for race; awareness of racial differences corresponds to lower, rather than higher, levels of racial bias.

Though her research corroborates the efficacy of race-awareness strategies as a mechanism for reducing prejudice, she finds that policies and practices drawing attention to differences between men and women may in fact increase stereotyping and bias.

Why are outcomes so different in the case of gender? Martin argues that the divergent effects of diversity ideologies on race and gender relations arise in part because people tend to rely on different system-justifying rationales to make sense of race and gender inequality. She argues that asking white Americans to think about racial differences reduces bias because it calls attention to the limited opportunities racial minorities face, which is a precursor to reducing inequality. Yet when men are asked to consider gender differences, they tend to rationalize unequal outcomes and attribute inequality to natural differences in men’s and women’s skills and abilities, thereby reinforcing inequality.

She also shows how different ways of thinking about gender and race relations have distinct implications in regard to the opportunity outcomes of women and racial minorities. In another experiment, Martin tests whether exposure to different ideologies corresponds to support for policies aimed at decreasing inequality. She finds that drawing attention to obstacles faced by African Americans increases white support for policies designed to combat systemic inequality, such as affirmative action. In the case of gender, however, she finds that emphasizing male-female differences reinforces support for the status quo, since such differences are assumed to be biological.

Her next question was whether these interventions have the potential to impact evaluations of underrepresented workers. To test this, Martin recruited a sample of 136 managers and asked them to conduct performance evaluations of female and black candidates after being primed to think about the benefits of either being aware of or blind to group differences. While no differences were found in the case of race, she found that ratings of female leadership ability were significantly higher among managers in the blindness condition, relative to those in the awareness condition. Her findings suggest that organizations can attempt to leverage “blindness to difference” approaches to reduce established forms of stereotyping and bias present in evaluations of women’s performance.

Martin’s research provides a roadmap for developing more tailored and effective diversity promotion efforts in organizations, workplaces, and society in general. She shows that while differences are important for capitalizing on diversity, we must carefully consider the types of group differences we are emphasizing. Calling attention to differences between social groups can have disparate implications for how individuals justify instances of race and gender inequality. For whites, racial differences are often perceived as external, so race-awareness strategies tend to increase support for policies that promote equality; for men, gender differences are often perceived as internal, so gender-awareness strategies highlight stereotypes, increase bias, and reinforces men’s influence. Ultimately, she argues, programs that shift focus to external differences in opportunity and experience, rather than internal differences in nature or biology, will be most successful in reducing group prejudice.

(photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash)

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