Addressing hidden identity threats in the diverse workplace

There are challenges concerning both minority and majority groups in the workplace that organisations must be aware of and act on, if diversity, equity and inclusion policies are to be effective, say UCL School of Management’s Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold

As workplaces become more diverse, many companies are already seeing great gains. Increased diversity in organisations has been linked to improvements in innovation and profitability, and it also plays a vital social purpose in reducing inequalities between demographic groups.

However, those who work at the forefront of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in organisations know that growing diversity also brings its share of challenges. Being around members of different groups can activate deep psychological anxieties for members of minority and majority groups alike. Our research shows how group identities (for example, gender, race or nationality) can lead employees of any background to feel a sense of threat, and how this threat may undermine employee wellbeing and the ability to work together harmoniously. Critically, because these threats are rooted in identity, rather than more tangible sources like competition over material resources, they can be challenging to put a finger on. Without understanding and addressing these often-overlooked threats, DEI efforts are likely to fall short of their goals.

Threats for members of minority groups

Groups that are historically underrepresented in many organisational contexts, such as ethnic minorities, or women in historically masculine industries and professional roles, often face both the burden of being relatively isolated, as well as the stigma often tied to their group membership.

For example, women are often stereotyped as communal (for example, warm, kind and sympathetic) and more suitable for support roles, as compared to men, who are more often considered for leadership positions. Because of this, as women start to progress in their careers and climb the corporate ladder, they can face increasing pressure to disprove the negative and discouraging stereotypes about women and leadership success. The pressure mounts the more underrepresented women are in comparison to men – such as at the top levels of many organisations – as their numerical minority status exposes them to heightened scrutiny and judgment from others.

This fear of confirming negative stereotypes about an identity you hold is called ‘stereotype threat’. Stereotype threat can be experienced as in-the-moment distracting anxieties and concerns that can undermine performance on a given task or activity (such as giving a high-stakes speech or presentation). It can also be experienced as chronic long-term disengagement, where the constant pressure and burden to not confirm stereotypes can eventually take their toll.

Threats for members of majority groups

Members of majority groups often enjoy something akin to the opposite of stereotype threat whereby their group identity serves as a consistent source of inclusion and comfort. For example, while women in historically masculine professions may worry whether, by virtue of their gender, they can belong, men in these contexts rarely have to think of their gender as a factor in their sense of ‘fit’ at work. In academic terms, we say that majority groups are ‘prototypical’ – being strongly associated with the broader context in which they exist (for example, in their organisation or profession) and setting the norms to which other groups are expected to conform to.

Although being prototypical affords members of majority groups a sense of comfort, this can quickly fade when change is on the horizon. If members of majority groups see the representation of minority groups increasing, they may experience prototypicality threat. Members of majority groups experiencing this threat may fear that their default sense of belonging will be lost and that they will soon be the ones who feel like outsiders. This fear that their comfort and security may be lost is a powerful driver of members of dominant groups’ resistance to diversity efforts and prejudice against minority groups.

Recommendations for reducing identity threats

Once organisations become aware of these identity threats, they will want to act to reduce them. Fortunately, the awareness of these threats alone is a great first step.

Research shows that members of minority groups who experience stereotype threat are more motivated to improve diversity climates. Organisations might think about giving minority voices a safe forum to acknowledge and share these firsthand experiences with stereotype threat. This is one way to raise awareness, normalise these discussions, and galvanise change.

Visibly highlighting the success of various minority employees can also be helpful, as role models have been found to have a protective effect against the pernicious effects of stereotype threat. This is due to the inspiring and empowering effect of seeing someone who looks like you achieve success. Additionally, visible examples of successful minorities can relieve the burden of any one individual having to prove negative stereotypes wrong. While these are good measures to include in DEI efforts, the responsibility to reduce these threats shouldn’t fall solely on the minority groups who are already facing an undue share of barriers.

To reduce prototypicality threat among members of majority groups, and thus forestall backlash against DEI efforts, organisations must also act proactively. Research shows that the more members of a majority/dominant group believe that their overrepresentation is legitimate, the more susceptible they are to feeling threatened by an increase in diversity.

One way that organisations may unintentionally lend legitimacy to dominant group prototypicality is by defining success in terms of traits that are stereotypically associated with the dominant group. For example, historically masculine professions might overemphasise the importance of assertiveness and strength, etc., in things like employee evaluations and recruiting materials that communicate what it takes to be a good employee. Making sure the definition of the organisation as a whole doesn’t align with the stereotypes of the majority group will help dispel myths that the majority group is naturally better suited for their job.

As we move towards more diverse and inclusive workplaces, organisations should be aware of these identity threats and strive to reduce their impact. By focusing only on highly accessible and obvious sources of tension, such as explicit prejudice, or anxiety about competition over jobs, organisations run the risk of overlooking the powerful undercurrent of identity threats and the negative psychological and interpersonal outcomes that can follow.

Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold are Assistant Professors in the Organisations and Innovation Group at University College London School of Management.

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