Opportunity & Access

Can You Spot Diversity? (Probably Not)

New research shows a “spillover effect” that might be clouding your judgment.

June 06, 2017

| by Chana R. Schoenberger


4 people of diverse gender and ethnicity

Managers often make false assumptions about how diverse their teams really are. | iStock/Aldomurillo

You may think you have a good sense of how diverse your team is. But new research shows that your brain may be tricking you into seeing more diversity than is actually present.

Stanford Graduate School of Business professors Margaret A. Neale and Lindred L. Greer, along with doctoral student David P. Daniels, found that when people perceive one type of diversity within a group — even something as mundane as height or shirt color — they are more likely to say the group is diverse in other ways, like race or gender, even when it isn’t. This is because of heuristics, or decision-making shortcuts that our brains use so that we don’t have to go through a time-consuming process of analysis every time we’re faced with a series of options. We don’t realize our brains are reducing choices to mental shorthand; the results just seem reasonable to us as we rush on to the next decision.

“We generalize individual dimensions of diversity in ways we might not even know we’re doing,” Neale says.

Understanding the human thought process around diversity matters to business leaders because they, and their employees, may be overestimating how much diversity is present, both in their workforce as a whole and in project teams. An insufficiently diverse group could be limited in how well it responds to challenges, which is why companies increasingly look beyond the public-relations benefits of diversity to understand how it can help their performance.

“We don’t know how biased we are,” Neale says. “After all, we don’t have the luxury of a control condition — knowing how we or others would have behaved under different circumstances. We believe that what we perceive is real and objective.”

In the paper “Spillover Bias in Diversity Judgment,” the researchers detailed a series of experiments they ran to determine whether people could accurately judge how diverse a group was. In one experiment, participants were shown three faces with different racial characteristics, then asked later how diverse the faces were by race and by gender. Although the gender makeup of each image was the same (two men and one woman), subjects who were shown racially diverse faces perceived more gender diversity.


Managers need to be much more intentional: Is my team diverse? On what dimension? Is that the dimension I care about?
Margaret A. Neale

In another experiment, participants were given T-shirts in different colors to wear while they worked in teams of two women and two men to assemble a LEGO kit. Again, although the gender makeup of each team was identical, participants in teams with more diverse shirt colors told the researchers that their team had more gender diversity. The study found similar evidence of spillover bias in other experiments, each of which established that people who observe one kind of diversity are likely to think a different kind of diversity is present.

These snap judgments about diversity also influenced experiment participants’ views on affirmative action. Experimental subjects were told about a fictional company, which had either high or low racial diversity. They were then told that the company had an affirmative action policy to correct bias against women in hiring practices. When asked how they felt about this gender-preference policy, subjects who had been told about a more racially diverse workplace and who also perceived their organization as more gender diverse said they thought the hiring program was more fair.

These findings are valuable to both academics and executives, Neale notes. For many years, researchers have struggled to find a correlation between a group’s level of diversity and its outcomes. To date, there have been few studies that establish a clear link between how diverse a team is and how well it does on various measures. The trouble, Neale says, may be in how people’s biases affect their observations of diversity.

“Perhaps some of the problems of whether diversity is good or bad is because people are making false assumptions about how diverse their teams really are,” she says.

For executives, Neale suggests trying to root out spillover bias.

“Managers need to be much more intentional: Is my team diverse? On what dimension? Is that the dimension I care about?” she says.

The way to overcome these built-in biases is to think about why you’re choosing, or not choosing, a particular person for a role, Neale says. She suggests managers ask themselves: What decision would we make if we thought our team wasn’t sufficiently diverse? What characteristics or experience should we prioritize when we make our next hire?

“The kind of diversity you need differs according to the problem your team faces,” she says.

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