Cultural sensitivity and acknowledging diversity are common goals for many institutions. But what exactly is diversity?
It depends in part on one’s ideological beliefs about the status quo and inequality.
Traditionally, “diversity” meant inclusiveness toward historically disadvantaged groups, said Miguel Unzueta, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.
Now, however, the term is commonly used to refer to people who are different in any way (even personality traits and food preferences) — and that, Unzueta argues, may be making the concept useless.
Unzueta said he saw this play out firsthand at the universities he was part of and the organizations he studied.
“It seemed like everyone was very comfortable talking about diversity, but not really race and gender,” he said. “The problem is, we could all be talking about diversity and we could all mean different things. It’s a very abstract, euphemistic catch-all.”
In a study published in Psychological Science, Unzueta and his colleagues designed an experiment to look at how people think about diversity. They recruited 300 people, mostly students and staff members at UCLA, to take an online survey.
Each person saw a profile of a company, showing how many people there were of four different racial groups and four different occupations. Different people saw different combinations, such as low racial diversity and low occupational diversity (mostly white and mostly engineers), low racial diversity but high occupational diversity, and so on.
Then they were asked if the company was “diverse” or not.
Researchers discovered people responded depending on their ideology, particularly something called “social dominance orientation.” This is a basic motivation to either maintain the status quo or decrease inequality.
People who score high in social dominance orientation are less democratic or egalitarian. When these people saw a company that was mostly white, but had fairly even numbers of engineers, accountants, consultants, and marketers, they declared it to be diverse. In the next phase of questions, they also said the company didn’t need affirmative action policies to improve its racial diversity.
“By calling the company diverse, that allows them to oppose race-based affirmative action,” Unzueta said.
Conversely, people with low social dominance orientation thought occupationally unbalanced companies lacked diversity — even if the company had high racial diversity. This allowed egalitarian-minded people to legitimize support for race-based affirmative action policies since the organization in question was seen as lacking diversity.
Thus, across the range of social dominance orientation, people leveraged demographic ambiguity in ways that justified their preexisting policy preferences.
Investigators discovered some people thought that having a roughly equivalent number of engineers, accountants, consultants, and marketers made a company “diverse.”
“One thing I hope this work is starting to make clear is that to talk about issues of fairness, social justice, and group-based equality, we can’t be using euphemisms,” Unzueta said.
“If a company really does want to have a racially diverse workforce, talk about race. Don’t hide behind ‘diversity.’”