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Diversity Talk Makes White Men Anxious, and Other Reasons Diversity Programs Fail

Topics: Current Events

Diversity in the workplace has been proven to foster innovation and creativity and improve recruitment and retention, and diverse teams are better at solving problems than teams that aren’t diverse. Despite all of this, a lot of companies aren’t diversifying the way evidence would suggest that they should. Women in the Workplace, a joint study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey, found that women are underrepresented in senior leadership, and a 2014 analysis from Russell Reynolds found that more than 84 percent of board seats in the Fortune 250 are held by people who identify as white. Why aren’t companies more diverse, given all we know about diversity’s benefits?

man walking

(Photo Credit: Mark Bruneke/Flickr)

In part, it might be because today’s diversity programs alienate white male employees without truly offering support for female and minority workers.

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“Most people assume that diversity policies make companies fairer for women and minorities, though the data suggest otherwise,” write Tessa L. Dover, Brenda Major, and Cheryl R. Kaiser at The Harvard Business Review. “Even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the presence of a diversity policy leads people to discount claims of unfair treatment. In previous research, we’ve found that this is especially true for members of dominant groups and those who tend to believe that the system is generally fair.”

In their research, Dover, Major, and Kaiser have found:

1. Diversity policies might actually do more harm than good.

A longitudinal study of over 700 companies based in the U.S. found that diversity programs didn’t increase diversity at all. In fact, they may even decrease the representation of black women within a company. Perhaps, the authors surmise, this is because the programs allow the companies to discount fears or claims of discrimination or unfair treatment.

2. “Dominant groups” feel the system is fair.

Confirming the research done by LeanIn.org this past year, these authors agree that members of dominant groups mistakenly feel that the system is fair, even when it’s not, and that this is especially true when diversity programs are in place. Anti-discrimination programs and policies could also help companies in court, meaning that these programs might actually make organizations less accountable.

3. Discrimination programs make white men anxious.

According to a recent experiment conducted by the authors, not only do white men tend to feel that systems are fair when they aren’t, but in the face of anti-discrimination policies and programs, they are actually likely to feel that they themselves are being discriminated against by their organizations.

In the experiment, white men interviewing for a job with a firm were presented with identical sets of introductory materials with just one difference between them. Half of the men’s packets mentioned the company’s “pro-diversity values” while the other half’s did not mention diversity at all. Cardiovascular stress responses were elevated for the group receiving the pro-diversity messaging, and this group also performed more poorly in their interviews.

“Thus, pro-diversity messages signaled to these white men that they might be undervalued and discriminated against,” the authors wrote. “These concerns interfered with their interview performance and caused their bodies to respond as if they were under threat. Importantly, diversity messages led to these effects regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world. This suggests just how widespread negative responses to diversity may be among white men: the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.”

So, What Now? 

Obviously, the solution to diversity programs that don’t work isn’t to cancel them altogether, but to create programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do. For managers wrestling with this problem, the following might help:

1. Work on messaging.

The authors suggest that simply understanding the impact these messages have on employees is a step in the right direction. Going beyond that, if managers focus on designing programs that come across as inclusive to all groups, they might have a better chance of achieving the level of diversity they’re hoping for. Avoiding diversity talk isn’t the answer, but those discussions can be more carefully designed and understood as we move forward.

2. Focus on unconscious bias.

It’s important to know that people often don’t understand the biases that they’re bringing to the table. Discussing the latest research on diversity could improve individuals’ understanding of their own responses. Similarly, unpacking unconscious bias could also help people become more sensitive and aware of diversity issues, and their own responses to them.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think talking about diversity helps or hurts? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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“Thus, pro-diversity messages signaled to these white men that they might be undervalued and discriminated against,” the authors wrote. “These concerns interfered with their interview performance and caused their bodies to respond as if they were under threat. Importantly, diversity messages led to these effects regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world. This suggests just how widespread negative responses to diversity may be among white men: the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.” Isn’t… Read more »

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