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Diversity Initiatives: Working or Worthless?

A couple of articles relevant to diversity have appeared in recent issues of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They have one author in common, namely Jenessa Shapiro of University of California. The first (with Cheryl Kaiser as lead author,) starts off quite stridently. It offers the opinion that “approaches to managing diversity, which we refer to as diversity structures, are often developed by human resource managers and self-professed diversity experts who have neither the training in theoretical and empirical issues from science on diversity nor the necessary background to evaluate the effects of these programs” (p 504). They go on to argue that diversity structures, designed by non-experts and unevaluated, might have the unintended consequence of creating an illusion of fairness and masking ongoing unfairness even to the courts.

They advance three strands of evidence to support these arguments:

a) Six experiments they carried out that support their argument that the simple existence of diversity structures reduces people’s perceptions of discrimination that was actually taking place.

b) Studies of court judgments, showing a deference to organisations with diversity structures. In other words, courts also fall victim to thinking that merely having a diversity structure implies a lack of discrimination.

c) Studies that show little or no support for some of the diversity initiatives currently employed by organisations. For example one such study showed that diversity training was associated with subsequent decreases in racial diversity, rather than the expected increase. Another study showed that asking people to suppress their stereotypes can inadvertently increase stereotyping and prejudice.

They suggest that the illusion of fairness arises because the existence of diversity structures is taken as evidence of procedural justice. Once such a belief has been established, it can cause a reaction against complaining members of under-represented groups.

The implication for organisations that are serious about reducing under-representation is that they must:

  • Base their diversity structures on a sophisticated understanding of what does and does not work.
  • Thoroughly evaluate the impact of diversity structures and face up to evidence of continuing under-representation rather than delude themselves that they are doing their best just because something is in place.

An example of the necessary sophisticated understanding of diversity is provided by the second article, of which Shapiro is the lead author. This looks at stereotype threat, a frequent explanation for the underperformance in selection procedures of under-represented groups. The logic of stereotype threat is that the member of the group taking the test is alerted to the stereotype that members of that group tend to underperform in such a test and they go on to underperform, perhaps through anxiety. Shapiro’s article says that our thinking about stereotype threat needs to be more sophisticated. She says we need a multi-threat framework, in particular we need to distinguish between the threat of letting one’s group down and letting oneself down. Having made the distinction, the interventions to counter each type of threat will be different. If the threat is to the group, then presenting the person with successful role models from the group should reduce the threat. On the other hand, if the threat is to the self, then self-affirmation should be effective. On the other hand, a threat of one type will not be reduced by an intervention for the other type.

Shapiro’s group carried out a series of experiments to support these hypotheses.

The practical implication for organisations that are serious about diversity is that they need:

a) To be aware of stereotype threat and its multifaceted nature

b) Take steps to reduce the impact of stereotype threat, employing different inoculations for different sources of threat

c) Evaluate success by monitoring results of different groups in the procedures that could trigger stereotype threats.

How Can Human Assets Help?

Our detailed understanding of the psychological literature on diversity helps us to help you achieve results in diversity. We can evaluate your current initiatives and work with you to implement steps that will bring further success. It is a complex area and we are inclined to agree with the authors of the first article that there are plenty of so-called experts who, despite the best of intentions, might lack the expertise to offer effective solutions.


Kaiser, C.R., Major, B., Jurcevic, I., Dover, T. L., Brady, L. M. and Shapiro, J. R. Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 2013, Vol 104, No 3, pp 504-519. Shapiro, J. R., Williams, A. M. and Hambarchyan, M. Are all interventions created equal? A multi-threat approach to tailoring stereotype threat interventions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2013, Vol 104, No 2, pp 277-288.


March 2013

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