It's fair for us: Diversity structures cause women to legitimize discrimination
The presence of diversity programs (such as diversity training or affirmative action) makes it more difficult for women to detect sexism, than when diversity structures are absent.
A priority for many American companies is to institute diversity programs, such as diversity training programs and affirmative action initiatives, for legally protected groups, including women and people of color. However, research has shown that these diversity programs may not actually make companies more diverse. Despite the limited effectiveness of these diversity programs, their mere presence in a company—even when they are shown to be ineffective—may make high status group members, such as white men, believe that the company is less discriminatory and more procedurally just. In other words, the presence of diversity structures, even when they are ineffective, leads to the “illusion of fairness.”
Furthermore, scholars have argued that women may be more complacent with gender inequality if they endorse benevolent sexist beliefs, that is, views that on the surface appear to cherish, protect, and idealize women, while still reinforcing traditional gender roles that give men more status than women.
In this study, researchers investigated the impact of the presence (versus absence) of diversity programs in a company on the ability of women to perceive sexism, and whether this impact changes based on whether the woman endorsed benevolent sexist beliefs
The presence of diversity programs (such as diversity training or affirmative action) makes it more difficult for women to detect sexism, compared to when diversity structures are absent. This effect is strongest in women who endorse benevolent sexist beliefs.
- When shown evidence that a company’s hiring decisions disadvantage women, women are more likely to perceive the company as procedurally just and less likely to support litigation against the company for discrimination based on gender if the company has a diversity program.
- Women who endorse benevolent sexist beliefs are less likely to be able to detect sexism in a company when that company has a diversity program.
- In contrast, women who reject benevolent sexist beliefs are more likely to be able to detect sexism.
- A woman’s endorsement of status legitimizing beliefs (such as, belief in the protestant work ethic) did not impact their ability to detect sexism in the presence or absence of diversity programs
These findings may explain why low status group members, such as women in corporations, may fail to perceive discrimination against their own group or fail to support the claims of discrimination made by people of their own group, especially when the company is perceived as having fair procedures. However, companies may intentionally or unintentionally use the mere presence of diversity programs to shield themselves from claims about their discriminatory practices and outcomes. This study draws attention to the importance of monitoring the effectiveness and outcomes of diversity programs.
In this study, using three experiments, researchers tested the impact of the presence of diversity structures in a company on the ability of women to detect sexism. They also tested how the women’s status legitimizing beliefs and attitudes about benevolent sexism moderated this effect.
In the first experiment, 113 women were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. They were randomly assigned to the control group (in which they were given information about a company that did not reference diversity programs) and to the intervention group (in which they were given information about a company that referenced the company’s diversity programs). They were then given evidence that the company had clear gender disparities in that, when presented with equally qualified men and women candidates, the company selected men for interviews 70% of the time and women 30% of the time. Finally, they were asked whether the women in the company were treated procedurally fairly and whether they would support litigation against the company for sex discrimination.
In the second experiment, 141 women were recruited from the University of Washington’s psychology subject pool. These participants were first tested on their endorsement of status legitimating beliefs (such as their beliefs in the protestant work ethic) and, several weeks later, shown and asked prompts similar to experiment 1.
In the third experiment, 238 women were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. They were asked to read an article formatted like the New York Times, describing a woman’s lawsuit with her employer about sex discrimination in salary and promotion. Participants were randomly assigned to the intervention group (in which they were shown information about that company winning a diversity award) and the control group (in which they were not shown information about the company’s diversity award). Like the previous studies, these participants were then asked whether they thought the company treated women procedurally fairly and whether they would support litigation against the company for sex discrimination. Finally, they were tested on whether they endorsed benevolent sexist beliefs. One area of future research for this study is to test whether the beliefs of white women differ from those of women of color on these metrics.