Diversity: How To Talk About It, & How Not To

When it comes to workplace diversity policies, there is no effective one-size-fits-all approach. That’s one of the conclusions of MIT Sloan assistant professor Evan Apfelbaum, who, with co-authors Ray Reagans of Sloan and Nicole Stephens of Northwestern Kellogg, recently completed a four-year study of the diversity efforts at 151 law firms and found that women and racial minorities respond differently to the same approach — and what maximizes the potential and boosts the self-worth and performance of one group may have the opposite effect on the other.

Evan Apfelbaum of MIT Sloan

Evan Apfelbaum of MIT Sloan

“The state of the literature at this point is like, ‘Do you have a diversity approach, do you have a diversity statement, or not?’ The box is checked if you have one,” says Apfelbaum, who co-wrote the study, “Beyond One Size Fits All,” that is slated to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “There was sort of a presumption that there was one way to talk about diversity, so this is what you find on a public diversity statement if you click on the ‘Diversity’ link on some of these firms’ websites. There’s one way to articulate how you view differences and your culture, etc. — the silver bullet way to do it — and if you describe it this way, all underrepresented groups, women, minorities, etc., will respond in chorus, very happily, and it will work out well for everyone.

“Basically this research was a reaction to the sense that that was a huge oversimplification of how this actually worked.”


Apfelbaum and his colleagues found that diversity approaches could be categorized in two broad types: “value in difference,” those that emphasize, and embrace, differences; and “value in equality,” those that emphasize fairness and equality. The study looks for a relationship between how the law firms talked about diversity and differences, and rates of attrition of women and racial minority associate attorneys at those firms. “Conceptually, we were trying to test the hypothesis that there isn’t one best way to talk about diversity, but different ways of talking about diversity work better for different groups — and this is a really powerful, big data set to try to get at that question.”

Law firms were chosen not to draw particular attention to that occupation but because they are a professional setting that offers that big amount of data — lots of employees, lots of diversity, Apfelbaum says in an interview with Poets&Quants. Law firms, he says, also tend to have a very large gap between representation of women associate attorneys — generally in the 30% to 45% range — and racial minorities, which rarely account for more than 5%. Numbers, Apfelbaum says, were a key factor in determining whether talking about differences was helpful or harmful.

“We think that there isn’t one best way to talk about diversity, but in order to figure out how to best talk about diversity — and when I say ‘best’ I mean, what is going to get people engaged and persevere and persist in difficult workplace conditions — what is best depends on who you’re targeting. And the reason for that is because different groups have different concerns,” Apfelbaum says.


So which of the two main approaches appeals to which group, and which doesn’t? Apfelbaum and his co-authors found that, first, “there was no evidence one of the two approaches was more effective than the other overall.” But when someone is a member of the larger group, say 40% of a firm’s workforce, they respond better to the “differences” message; when someone is in the 5% group they respond better to the “equality” message.

“And so if I said, ‘Here at Law Firm X, we care about differences — let me tell you why differences are important to what we do and foster in our culture,’ that may feel different if you’re one of 40 percent than if you’re the only African-American person standing in that room,” Apfelbaum says. “That can be alienating, and sort of arm people with the thought that, ‘Oh the only reason you’re here is because you’re black,’ or that people are now looking at you just for that racial group membership. And so what we find is that there’s just drastically different reactions from people depending on numbers.”

Responding to critics who might suggest the responses are a matter of personal taste in the respondents, Apfelbaum points to experiments the researchers conducted that asked participants to envision themselves in one or the other group — African-American attorneys in the 5% or 40%, for example. The results backed up his contention that “it’s not about just tastes of different groups, it’s about the structural conditions you find yourself in typically.”


Apfelbaum says the study “accurately reflects the complexity of managing diversity in contemporary society — that there is no one-size-fits-all, that you’re going to have to think a little bit more carefully about what concerns people have and tailor your organizational message to those concerns.”

And while that “seems sort of commonsensical in retrospect,” it was a revelation “totally absent from the dialogue among practitioners and researchers.” So will it make a difference?

“Time will tell. I certainly hope so, and I’m going to do my best to sort of get organizations to think about using this to help them out. I think it’s one of the rare fixes where it also sort of serves a social justice goal, but at the same time it’s making people who only care about bottom-line interests have a little more bang for their buck — because this is a diversity approach that is not only window dressing. We have evidence that it’s actually boosting persistence and engagement in work contexts, which any organizational leader is going to care about in their workforce.”

Still, he has concerns, chiefly that employers might draw the wrong conclusion from the study, that they only need to tweak their message and things will change on the ground. “What we’d like to argue,” Apfelbaum says, “is that the message is really the tip of an iceberg, it’s emblematic of what the culture is in the place in terms of how people think about differences, and changing a few words on a boilerplate statement is not going to make any difference. So what you kind of hope is that this doesn’t turn into a checked box to show people that they’ve gone through the measures to create an equitable climate. Because that’s not what we’re trying to say.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.