Why do even well-intentioned leaders and organizations fall short in achieving their diversity goals?

The majority of research examining when employment discrimination occurs focuses on what I refer to as “gateways” — opportunities in which a door is opened and a “yes” or “no” decision is made (e.g., hiring and promotion). Yet, subtle discrimination can also derive from “pathways” — processes that influence whether a person has knowledge of and access to a gateway (e.g., mentorship and feedback). 

In a field experiment set in academia, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities. We found that white males were granted access to meet with faculty members 26 percent more often and more promptly than were women and minorities. However, this bias was only seen for meeting requests for the future — not for same-day meeting requests. This “temporal discrimination effect” is aligned with research showing that decisions about the future can increase reliance on stereotypes, harming outcomes for minorities and women. In other words, the type of deliberative thinking that can be triggered by making choices about the future, relative to making choices for today, may not always lead to socially desirable outcomes. The findings suggest that women and minorities can experience better outcomes when they violate social norms by making last-minute requests rather than following conventional networking norms.

We also found that discrimination is more pronounced in higher-paying academic disciplines (e.g. business, education, human services) and at private universities. This effect did not depend on the representation of women and minorities among the faculty in a discipline or university, suggesting that greater representation is not a panacea for reducing bias.

Another of my recent studies showed that when organizations broaden the term diversity to include a wide array of dimensions — such as cognitive styles and personality traits — it can displace efforts focused on more traditional diversity dimensions, such as race and gender. I have also found that as organizations have sought to transcend tokenism (i.e. having a single female representative to demonstrate gender diversity), they have converged on a similar bias of having two women in coveted positions. Tokenism has been replaced with “twokenism” — and this phenomenon is particularly pronounced for firms under high media scrutiny and concerned with managing their image.