The Problem With How We Talk About Diversity

Celebrating stars who break the glass ceiling can set back the cause for equality. Ditto for pushing the business case
Alan Morantz
2018: Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, answering questions at a press conference at the German Chancellery in Berlin

The essentials

  • When people are made aware of gains by women in leadership, they become disinterested in less visible forms of gender inequality such as the pay gap.

  • New research suggests that by emphasizing the business case for diversity, organizations unwittingly trigger a social identity threat among under-represented groups.

  • When highlighting a leadership-position breakthrough by a woman or visible minority, focus on the commitment to equality rather than the achievement. Avoid promoting the business case for diversity.

If you work in the diversity and inclusion space, you likely have a couple of go-to moves. Celebrate progress made by a woman in a high-profile leadership position. And tout the business case for diversity to win over skeptics. 

It is indeed heartening to see women, such as Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, steering countries and corporations successfully. And the business case for diversity is certainly compelling. Greater diversity is linked to higher profits and innovation revenue and greater creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Yet there’s also an uncomfortable reality. Gains have been slow, and, in some cases, reversed. What gives? There are plenty of theories but perhaps one is especially overlooked: the way we talk about diversity and inclusion. Or, more precisely, what people hear when leaders talk about diversity and inclusion. 

Celebrating stars

Take the well-meaning strategy to celebrate individuals climbing the ranks. It makes sense to highlight star performers; they act as role models for younger generations. But recent research suggests this could have unintended negative consequences. One study, which involved a number of experiments, showed that when people were made aware of substantive improvement for women in senior leadership—say Marissa Mayer breaking through the glass ceiling to be CEO of Yahoo—they assumed that progress was made by all women. As a result, people were less disturbed by other areas of gender inequity, such as the pay gap. And less disturbed means less motivated to agitate for change.

Women and men, liberals and conservatives, all exhibited less concern with an ongoing type of inequality when cued by these celebrations of women. 

This is likely an example of what social psychologists call “overgeneralization”. It’s the tendency we all have to apply one experience to all experiences, including those in the future.

“It's ironic that this thing that we all want to do, which is to celebrate progress in top leadership, can present an unexpected barrier to progress in other domains of gender inequality,” says Aneeta Rattan, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School. “But our research underscores the reality that it might be doing so because we know that people’s motivation to address inequality is strongly tied to how disturbed they are by it.”  

Rattan conducted the studies with colleague Oriane Georgeac, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Yale School of Management. They both discussed their findings at a research event staged by the Community Impact Research Program at Smith School of Business.

Business case for diversity

Georgeac and Rattan ran into a different type of diversity communications conundrum at the organizational level. Whether out of stakeholder pressure or genuine concern, most large businesses now publish statements on their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They either present the business case for diversity (the benefits to performance and the bottom line) or the fairness case (it’s simply the right and moral thing to do).

These may seem like boilerplate statements, but they do carry a message to job seekers within under-represented groups — and not a positive one. In an experiment Georgeac and Rattan conducted with 480 African-American university students, the participants who read a mock business case for diversity anticipated greater rejection in the organization and a lower sense of belonging (there was a similar though weaker effect from the fairness case).

In a followup experiment, the researchers were able to see what drove this sense of rejection. The business case for diversity, in particular, unsettled minorities. It triggered what is known as social identity threat, the concern of being seen through the lens of social stereotypes. The business case makes this explicit, tying social identities to positive business outcomes. The trouble is that celebrating positive stereotypes of certain groups may activate other, less-welcome, stereotypes. (A woman can be seen as highly communal-oriented but not individualistic enough to be ambitious.) 

As a result, the researchers figure the business case for diversity is about two to three times more detrimental to African-Americans than the fairness case.

These results held for LGBTQ+ professionals and women in science, technology, engineering and math, but not to male job seekers in these domains, “suggesting this is really a phenomenon specific to under-represented groups in a given context in organizations,” says Georgeac.

When peoples’ social identities are threatened, their performance also suffers. The researchers found stark evidence for this in their study. They found that women who were randomly assigned to read one paragraph of a business case for diversity just before a mock job interview performed significantly worse than women who read a fairness case.

“All in all, the business case undercuts an organization’s efforts to recruit and attract more diverse talent pools,” says Georgeac. “The business case is actually a cue of social identity threat despite all of the positive content.”

Tweaking the talk

So here’s the picture: Blanket celebrations of female leaders appear to reduce the urgency to address other, less visible forms of gender inequities. And corporate diversity statements are seen as a threat to the people they are meant to reassure.

This research, though, does offer clues to more refined messaging around diversity and inclusion.

One, when highlighting a breakthrough by a woman or visible minority in a leadership position, focus on the commitment to equality rather than the achievement. U.S. President Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris tread this line well when Harris became the first female vice-president of the United States. They acknowledged the moment but emphasized that it was one step on a long road.

Two, make a small linguistic tweak by referring to gender inequalities rather than gender inequality. 

Three—and this is a challenging suggestion—reconsider your reliance on the business case for diversity. Some stakeholders may eat the business case up. But, as the research shows, emphasizing it presents yet another barrier to attracting qualified under-represented candidates. 

That doesn’t mean organizations should avoid the diversity issue altogether. Make your inclusion programs known. Share your statistics on the organization’s diverse workforce. But don’t justify why such programs exist. “You can, and should, talk about diversity,” says Rattan. “But present your commitment as something that does not need any explanation, as a natural thing that is core to the organization's mission.”

This is a big ask. The vast majority of large firms are attached to the business case for diversity. Indeed, Rattan and Georgeac used a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the diversity rhetoric of Fortune 500 companies. A little more than 80 per cent made a business case and only one per cent the fairness case.

It’s almost as if firms are trying to convince themselves that diversity and inclusion is a good idea rather than going out and truly harnessing what diversity has to offer. Going forward, they might want to spend less time making the case for diversity and more time taking an honest look at the power structures that are holding back real progress. 

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