Diversity: A Diverse Approach Works

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 20, 2016 – A new study of the diversity approaches of 151 law firms to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that women and racial minorities may not only have different, but dramatically opposite, responses to the same statement.

These stated diversity approaches can be broken down broadly into two types: those that emphasize and embrace differences and those that emphasize equality and fairness.

“Our data suggest that women and racial minorities not only respond differently to these two diversity approaches, but in virtually the opposite way. The more firms emphasize the value in differences, the lower rates of attrition were among women, whereas the more firms emphasized the value in equality, the lower rates of attrition were among racial minorities,” says leader author, Evan Apfelbaum, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, who co-authored the paper with Nicole Stephens from the Kellogg School of Management and Ray Reagans from MIT Sloan. “I think the key to understanding our results is appreciating how the relative size of these groups’ representation shapes their concerns with “sticking out”.

Though women and racial minorities are often considered under the same umbrella of stigmatized groups, White women often comprise 40% of all employees in professional settings, whereas Black women and men, for instance, rarely comprise more than 5% of employees.

Interestingly, controlled experiments confirmed that which diversity approach works best—in terms of increasing performance and persistence—depends on the size of the group in the firm. When individuals believed that they were 5% of the firm, the approach that emphasized equality and fairness increased performance and persistence. This was true regardless of whether they were White or Black. When individuals believed that they were 40% of the firm, we saw the reverse pattern: the diversity approach that emphasized and embraced differences increased performance and persistence, regardless of whether they were White or Black. “This evidence suggests that numbers, and the social context that stigmatized groups find themselves in, play a critical role in determining which diversity approach is best,” says Apfelbaum.

“I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to talking about diversity that will work uniformly well across groups and contexts. Rather, harnessing the benefits of diversity approaches requires tailoring them—in terms of their focus on differences versus equality—to the concerns of the particular social groups targeted by these efforts.”