Study of the Day: 'Diversity' Has Become a Useless Concept

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Research shows how a term that once uplifted historically disadvantaged groups has become a euphemistic stand-in for race and gender.

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PROBLEM: Initially, diversity pertained to inclusiveness toward historically disadvantaged groups. How far have people strayed from this original denotation?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Miguel Unzueta of the University of California, Los Angeles, designed an experiment to look at how people think about diversity today. They recruited 300 people, mostly students and staff members at UCLA, to take an online survey. The subjects saw a profile of a company with various combinations of racial and occupational diversity, and were asked if the company was "diverse" or not and for their thoughts on affirmative action.

RESULTS: How the respondents answered depended on their so-called "social dominance orientation" or predilection to either maintain the status quo or decrease inequality. When those who scored high in this ideological metric saw a company that was mostly white, but had fairly even numbers of engineers, accountants, consultants, and marketers, they tended to declare it to be diverse and oppose affirmative action. People with low social dominance orientation, on the contrary, thought occupationally unbalanced firms lacked diversity, even if the company had high racial diversity.

CONCLUSION: People who are less egalitarian are more likely to use the term "diverse" loosely and leverage demographic ambiguity to justify their preexisting policy preferences.

IMPLICATION: The increasing fuzziness of the term "diversity" may be rendering it useless. "To talk about issues of fairness, social justice, and group-based equality, we can't be using euphemisms," said Unzueta in a statement. "If a company really does want to have a racially diverse workforce, talk about race. Don't hide behind diversity."

SOURCE: The full study, "Diversity Is What You Want It to Be: How Social-Dominance Motives Affect Construals of Diversity," is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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