Over the last several years, there has been an increased push to talk about diversity, under the assumption that being blind to difference is counterproductive and that to leverage the benefits of diversity, we have to emphasize it. But is it really a good idea to talk about difference? This week’s WAPPP seminar featured Ashley Martin, PhD Candidate at Columbia Business School, as she presented a series of studies about awareness of difference and effects on inclusion and empowerment.
There is a great deal of literature about awareness of difference with respect to race: talking about difference reduces bias and increases engagement. However, there is almost no research on this awareness strategy for gender. The single study that had been published showed that being aware of or emphasizing gender differences was related to benevolent sexism. As a field, researchers have not systematically explored the types of differences attention to diversity emphasizes, whether they are similar for race and gender, and how this strategy affects outcomes for each group.
Effects of awareness on attributions of difference
In the first study, the researchers asked 143 participants to list ten differences either between men and women or between black and white people. When asked to categorize these differences, it became clear that the listed racial differences were far more in the realm of opportunity and culture, and the gender differences were more related to personality and biology. The results of this initial study demonstrate that the types of differences that people generate when asked to consider race and gender are difference – for race, people focus on external differences related to opportunity, but for gender, people focus on internal differences.
The second study served to measure individuals’ beliefs about how one should approach difference. Study participants were rated on an awareness scale (how often they agreed with statements like “there are differences between groups that should be acknowledged” versus “there is no reason to categorize people based on their membership in a certain group”) and how often they attributed difference to external versus internal factors (opportunity/culture or personality/biology). Study participants who said that we should celebrate racial differences were more likely to attribute difference to opportunity; by contrast, those who said we should celebrate gender differences were more likely to attribute difference to biology. Recognizing external differences with respect to race is a positive development, as recognizing inequality is the first step in disrupting it. However, attributing gender differences to personality and biology has consequences for women.
In particular, the third study revealed that “personality differences” really boil down to stereotypes about gender and leadership; that men are agentic and assertive, whereas women are communal and warm. By telling people to recognize and embrace differences, we may be inadvertently telling them to embrace stereotypes that limit women’s opportunities. In this experiment, subjects were divided into three groups: the first read an article on why it is good to be aware of differences, the second an article on why it is good to be blind to differences, and the third were simply asked to think about diversity.
In the second stage of the study, participants were asked to rate whether differences between groups were due to opportunity or biology, to what extent a list of character traits regarding assertiveness versus communality were associated with each group, and a measure of “denial of inequality” – whether participants thought that discrimination was not a problem, and that on average all groups were treated equally.
On the race side, participants were more likely to attribute difference to opportunity rather than biology. However, those who reflected on the importance of acknowledging difference in the first stage were more likely to attribute differences to opportunity, while those who read the article deemphasizing difference made fewer opportunity attributions. On the gender side, participants endorsed biological reasons for difference in both the control and the “aware” condition. Only the group who read the article about being blind to difference attributed gender differences more to opportunity than to biology. Further analysis of these findings indicated that there was little connection between race and stereotyping. By contrast, all participants associated men with agency much more than women, though in the blind condition, this assessment decreased somewhat.
Overall, this study reveals that being blind to difference is the baseline for racial differences, and that awareness pushes people to consider the antecedents of difference more closely. For gender, awareness of difference doesn’t change results from the status quo, but being blind to difference can improve assessments of women.
Effects on bias
The next study was designed to test the effects of awareness ideology on bias. Two groups of male study participants were asked to read either the “aware of difference” article or the “blind to difference” article, and then were given a woman’s resume and asked to rate her leadership potential and assess whether they would hire her. In the awareness condition, participants rated the applicant lower on leadership potential than in the blindness condition, and were less likely to hire her. The decision to hire is mediated by the individual’s leadership evaluation, which is itself affected by stereotypes regarding agency and what makes a good leader that are emphasized through awareness of gender difference.
Effects on women’s confidence
How do these assessments affect women at work? In the next study, 163 women were asked to make lists of differences or similarities between genders, and were then asked to what extent these qualities undermined their ability to be seen as a leader. When women listed differences, they perceived these differences as having a major negative effect on their leadership potential and listed more words related to agency and assertiveness than when they listed similarities.
In the next phase of the study, 115 women read either the article about the benefits of being aware of difference, the benefits of being blind to difference, or a control article that was completely devoid of any gendered content. Next, the participants took a workplace confidence scale: in the control condition and in the awareness condition, women rated their workplace confidence above the midpoint. However, in the blindness condition, women rated themselves as significantly more competent.
Awareness of difference not only affects confidence, but also action-taking. The next study featured 126 female managers, who read either the aware or blind to differences article, then completed a self-assessment of their agency, the workplace confidence scale, and then participated in several risky decision tasks. In the awareness condition, the participants identified less with agency, rated themselves lower on workplace confidence, and took less action than in the blindness condition.
In the final study, the researchers examined how men’s awareness beliefs affected male-female interactions. Study participants were divided into male-female pairs. In the first part of the study, the men read either the awareness or blindness article. Next, the pairs were asked to complete the bushfire survival task, requiring them to discuss and rank a list of survival items in order of importance. Independent raters were asked to evaluate the amount of time men versus women spent talking, the level of openness in the conversation, and the overall quality of the interaction. In the awareness condition, men spoke more than women and were less open. In the blindness condition, women spoke significantly more than men, men and women were equally open, and the interactions were overall higher in quality. Indeed, it seemed that men were “leaning out” so that women could lean in.
The results of these studies indicate that awareness of difference can be beneficial in attributing race to external differences, but that deemphasizing gender difference leads to better outcomes for women. This research demonstrates that diversity strategies shouldn’t be monolithic, as they may not work for all groups. Perhaps instead of discussing differences between men and women, discussing similarities may be an effective intervention to promote gender equality.