Can Diversity Initiatives Ironically Legitimize Unfairness?
Our early research demonstrated that the very symbols intended to communicate an appreciation of diversity might inadvertently lead to decreased minority representation and biased actions. For example, we tested whether the mere presence of diversity efforts affords organizations greater legitimacy to enact procedures that perpetuate, rather than mitigate, bias. Participants learned about an organization that had received a diversity award or an award unrelated to diversity. They also learned that the organization had implemented either an unbiased interviewing process (standardized interviews) or a biased interviewing process (unstandardized interviews). When the organization had received a diversity award (versus a control award), participants perceived the biased procedure as fairer for ethnic minorities and were more supportive of enacting this procedure (Kirby, Kaiser, & Major, Social Justice Research, 2015). Similarly, across three experiments, when an organization had a diversity statement (versus a general mission statement), women were less supportive of sexism litigation because they perceived the company as more procedurally fair for women, even in the face of evidence to the contrary (Brady, Kaiser, Major, & Kirby, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2015). This research cemented our lab’s interest in understanding the efficacy of diversity efforts, ensuring that they have a solid theoretical basis and increase fairness, inclusivity, and diversity.
How Do Identity-Focused Spaces Impact Academic Engagement?
While surface-level policies and efforts may harm inclusivity, more genuine and resource-intensive efforts, such as physical spaces can promote inclusion. Across four experiments, we examined whether the allocation of ethnicity-focused physical space on university campuses can have symbolic benefits for people of color, for whom lack of belonging is a key concern (Kirby et al., Social Psychological & Personality Science, 2020). Students of color who were highly underrepresented on their university campus (Latinx, African American, and Native American) learned about a space dedicated to underrepresented students of color (“ethnic space”) or a general student space being constructed on their campus. Learning about the ethnic space led to greater belonging in the broader university context and academic engagement compared to learning about the general space. The benefits of ethnic space occurred irrespective of being physically present or reported intention or ability to use the space, suggesting that it served as a symbolic indicator of a more welcoming university context.
We have also investigated how variation in identity goals shapes the effects of identity-focused spaces on the self. We examined how international students experience two distinct public spaces on a university campus – a majority space dedicated to all students versus a minority space dedicated to international students – and whether their experiences depended on their acculturation orientations (i.e., their desire to maintain their culture of origin versus engage with their new host culture). Across three pre-registered field experiments, we randomly assigned international students to respond to a questionnaire in a majority or minority space (Ng, Morton, & Kirby, under review). Students experienced the spaces as more restorative and felt more belonging when the space was compatible with their acculturation orientations – international students oriented to maintain their culture of origin felt more belonging in the minority space, but those oriented toward the host culture felt more belonging in the majority space. We are testing similar questions in a longitudinal study to examine how these processes develop over time and impact space usage and belonging (Ng, Morton, Tsukayama, & Kirby, in prep). This research demonstrates that neglecting important individual differences can impede understanding about which diversity efforts are effective for whom.
Can an Intersectionality Framework Improve Diversity Initiatives?
Like individual differences, different identities and their intersections shape the efficacy of diversity efforts. Using an intersectional framework, we compared the efficacy of leadership training diversity initiatives for people with a single disadvantaged identity (i.e., White women) to those with multiple disadvantaged identities (i.e., Asian and Black women; Wong, Kirby, Rink, & Ryan, under review). In three pre-registered studies, Asian and White women (relative to Black women) anticipated that an assertiveness training would be more effective than competence training or a neutral control training because it would help them combat the passivity stereotypes they believe others hold of their group. Because the passivity stereotype does not apply to them, Black women were instead interested in intersectional leadership approaches that considered both gender and race disadvantage together. Thus, diversity efforts are more effective when matched to particular identities – one size does not fit all.