What Do You Mean by Diversity? Ethnic Background Impacts Beliefs

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Is this group diverse? It depends on who you ask. Image by GyorgyMadarasz.

If you’ve worked for a large corporation, attended university, or paid attention to politics, you’ve heard something about the goal of increasing diversity.

Most likely, you thought you knew what the term ‘diversity’ meant, and may have agreed attaining it is a worthy goal.

As it turns out, diversity is a more complex concept than we previously realized.

Research by D. Christopher Bauman of the University of California, Irvine and colleagues from the University of Virginia and the University of California, Los Angeles indicates that individuals of different backgrounds perceive diversity differently.

Three separate experiments uncovered more about people’s perceptions of diversity.

Race Affects Perceptions of Diversity

According to the article published by SAGE in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, in the first study, authors interviewed 1899 people enrolled to take surveys through GfK, previously known as Knowledge Networks.  The 1899  respondents included “391 Asian American, 620 African American, and 888 non-Hispanic White” individuals.  This experiment looked at how “diversity judgments differed as a function of the racial composition of a team and perceivers’ racial group.

Researchers showed participants pictures of fictional work teams which included either six whites, four white and one Asian and one Black member, four whites and two Black members, or four whites and two Asian members.  The participants then indicated how diverse the groups were by rating comments such as, “This team includes a high degree of ethnic diversity,” on a seven point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

The responses varied by the race of the participant, or the in-group of the respondent.  The author notes “Asian Americans and African Americans judged teams that included racial in-group members to be more diverse than teams that included racial minority out-group members.”  In other words, when Blacks and Asians saw their own racial group represented on the team, they were more likely to state it was a diverse group than if it only had members of the other minority group.

The effect of including the in-group was especially significant for African Americans.  Whites tended to view the group with one Asian and one African American as the most diverse and groups with two Asians or two Blacks as representing the same amount of diversity.  Overall, White respondents rated diversity higher than Black respondents.

Reminders of Discrimination Affect Perceptions of Diversity

The second study used Qualtrics, a research software company to recruit 1,080 people, including 574 Black and 471 Asian U. S. residents. This study studied whether reminding people of discrimination makes them view diversity differently.

Authors also theorized the “level of racial identification” felt by respondents would impact beliefs about the diversity of a group.

Before looking at fictional work teams, participants indicated how strongly they identified with their race by answering questions such as “In general, my race is an important part of my self-image.”

Participants also read one of three made-up articles. One stated that employment discrimination had increased against African Americans in recent years. One stated that employment discrimination had increased for Asian Americans in recent years. The third article, a neutral piece, explained that fast food companies would not be held responsible for consumer’s health issues.

The authors found “[s]tronger racial identification was associated with less perceived diversity” for Asian Americans, but not for African Americans, whose stated racial identification did not impact their beliefs about the diversity of the fictional work team.  As in the first study, African Americans rated groups as more diverse if they included an African American member over Asian American representation.

The effect of priming with the made-up news stories varied by race.  The authors found Asian Americans’ beliefs about how much diversity a work group had was impacted by reading a story about discrimination in the workplace when including members of the participants in-group (Asian Americans.)  African Americans were not affected by the story, judging groups to be as diverse when including in-group (Black members) regardless of which story they read.  When the story participants read was about the other minority group, it increased sensitivity to diversity.

Asian and White Students Disagree

The last study included 346 university students, 210 non-Hispanic Whites and 126 Asian by self-report. Researchers showed students fictional work groups of either five Asian and three whites, five Blacks and three whites, three members each of White, Asian and Black races or all-white groups.

As you may have expected, no one viewed the the all-white group as diverse.  White respondents, however, “perceived the same amount of diversity in the AsianMajority and BlackMajority conditions.”  As the authors report,” Asian American participants saw clear differences across the AsianMajority and BlackMajority conditions, whereas White participants did not.”

Implications of Varied Perceptions of Diversity

What do you consider diverse? Image by duane_i.

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Bauman addressed the possible results if respondents of other racial groups had been studied: “My guess is that Latinos and Native Americans also would exhibit the in-group representation effect, as would Whites in some circumstances.

He continued, “however, I’d like to emphasize that one of the main take-aways of this research is that each racial group has a unique history and unique perspective on race and diversity.”

Dr. Bauman suggested to Decoded Science leaders and policy makers should not, “rely on their personal assessments of diversity. Instead organizations must assess the opinions of different groups and resist the temptation to aggregate the data across minority groups.”  He further clarified, “By aggregation, I mean that the data from each group should be considered separately because averaging across minority-groups can mask important discrepancies in how people experience diversity.

Bauman continued, “Second, including minority group members from one group has only a limited effect on how diverse a team or organization seems to members of other minority groups.”

He explains that leaders’ “failure to understand the potential for differences of opinion about diversity may cause others to question fairness and feel resentment or betrayal.”

Diversity: Moving the Goal Posts

Diversity is a laudable goal, but is it possible? The goal posts appear to be  in different locations, depending on who is the referee.

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