History backfires: Reminders of past injustices against women undermine support for workplace policies promoting women
Reminders of historic injustices against women increase men’s denial of current gender discrimination, thereby decreasing their support for employment equity policies that aim to promote the hiring of women.
Public discourses about social injustice justify the need for mandated equality and diversity policies by citing the histories of past injustices against marginalized groups (such as women and people of color). For example, one such policy is one that implements hiring quotas that require organizations to hire a minimum percentage of women. One common rationale, directly or implicitly given to support the policy, is that present-day quotas are needed to compensate and serve as reparations for past discrimination, when women were denied equitable employment opportunities due to their gender. Referencing past injustice serves to make people more sensitive to how historic systems of oppression contribute to present-day inequalities.
However, previous research suggests that employment equity policies are sometimes counterproductive to diversifying organizations due to the backlash they trigger. For example, policies that require gender parity in selection committees have been shown to have the opposite desired effect and instead increase the likelihood that a man will be hired.
In this study, researchers investigated how reminders of historic injustices against women impacted men and women’s attitudes towards employment equity or diversity policies that promote or require companies to hire women employees.
Reminders of historic injustices against women increase men’s denial of current gender discrimination, thereby decreasing their support for employment equity policies that aim to promote the hiring of women. Such reminders of historic injustice do not have the same effects on women.
- Men presented with reminders of historic injustice against women experienced a lower sense of collective, gender-based self-esteem than men who were not reminded of the historic injustice.
- Men presented with a narrative of “mitigated discrimination”—that is, a reminder that there were historic injustices against women, but that there have been progressive gains made to improve the condition of women—were less likely to deny present-day gender discrimination than men presented with a reminder of historic injustices without the additional information about progress.
- Men presented with the “mitigated discrimination” information are thereby more likely to support employment equity policies that aim to promote the hiring of women than men provided with the reminder about historic injustice without the progress narrative.
These findings provide support for the theory that members of the advantaged group (in this case, men) feel threatened and defensive when reminded of historic injustices perpetrated by their identity group. This threat to men’s social identity is lessened when the reminder of past injustice is softened with additional information about social progress.
In a series of four studies, researchers investigated the effects of reminders of past injustices against women on men and women’s support for employment equity policies.
In the first study, 115 Canadian students were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that received information reminding them about past injustices against women in Canada at the turn of the 20th century, and the other which merely featured historic information about living conditions in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. After reading this historic information, participants were assessed on their denial of current gender discrimination in Canada. After that, they were told that their university co-op program, which they were all applying to, would institute an employment equity policy promoting the hiring of women, and participants were assessed on their support for such a policy.
In the second study, 241 American working adults recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were randomly assigned to read about an employment equity policy promoting women at a hypothetical company that either justified the need for such a policy by invoking past discrimination against women or did not use past discrimination justification. Participants then answered the same questions about their perceptions of current gender discrimination and support for the policy.
In the third study, 218 Canadian students were sorted into a condition in which they were reminded about historic injustices against women (like in the first study) or into a condition called the “mitigated injustice” condition (in which they were reminded both about historic injustices about women and about the progressive gains that have been made to better the condition of women).
In the fourth study, 335 Canadian students were sorted into the same two conditions as the first study, and then assess on how reminders about historic injustices against women, as compared to general information about historic living conditions, impacted their sense of collective self-esteem with respect to their gender. Some limitations of this study were that student participants made up a large portion of the sample, and that the study only focused on historic injustices against women.