We Need a Better Way to Talk About Diversity at Work

Alan Morantz
Apr 12 · 5 min read

Celebrating women who break through the glass ceiling or pushing the business case for diversity can set back the drive for equality

Photo by Denise Chan on Unsplash

If you work in the diversity and inclusion space, you likely have a couple of go-to moves. Celebrate progress made by a woman in a high-profile leadership position. And tout the business case for diversity to win over skeptics.

It is indeed heartening to see women, such as Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, steering countries and corporations successfully. And the business case for diversity is certainly compelling. Greater diversity is linked to higher profits and innovation revenue and greater creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Yet there’s also an uncomfortable reality. Gains have been slow, and, in some cases, reversed. What gives? There are plenty of theories but there’s one factor that should get more attention: the way we talk about diversity and inclusion. Or, more precisely, what people hear when leaders talk about diversity and inclusion.

Take the well-meaning strategy to celebrate individuals climbing the ranks. It makes sense to highlight star performers; they act as role models for younger generations. But recent research suggests this could have unintended negative consequences. One study, which involved a number of experiments, showed that when people are made aware of substantive improvement for women in senior leadership — say Marissa Mayer breaking through the glass ceiling to be CEO of Yahoo — they assume that progress has been made by all women. As a result, people are less disturbed by other areas of gender inequity, such as the pay gap. And less disturbed means less motivated to agitate for change.

Women and men, liberals and conservatives, all exhibit less concern with an ongoing type of inequality when cued by these celebrations of women.

This is likely an example of what social psychologists call overgeneralization. It’s the tendency we all have to apply one experience to all experiences, including those in the future.

The business case for diversity. . . or not

There is a different type of diversity communications conundrum at the organizational level. Whether out of stakeholder pressure or genuine concern, most large businesses now publish statements on their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They either present the business case for diversity (the benefits to performance and the bottom line) or the fairness case (it’s simply the right and moral thing to do).

These may seem like boilerplate statements, but they do carry a message to job seekers within under-represented groups — and not a positive one. In an experiment involving 480 African-American university students, the participants who read a mock business case for diversity anticipated greater rejection in the organization and a lower sense of belonging (there was a similar though weaker effect from the fairness case).

In a followup experiment, the researchers, Oriane Georgeac (Yale School of Management) and Anita Rattan (London Business School), were able to see what drove this sense of rejection. The business case for diversity, in particular, unsettled minorities. It triggered what is known as social identity threat, the concern of being seen through the lens of social stereotypes. The business case makes this explicit, tying social identities to positive business outcomes. The trouble is that celebrating positive stereotypes of certain groups may activate other, less-welcome, stereotypes. A woman can be seen as highly communal-oriented, for example, but not individualistic enough to be ambitious.

As a result, the researchers figure the business case for diversity is about two to three times more detrimental to African-Americans than the fairness case.

These results held for LGBTQ+ professionals and women in science, technology, engineering and math, but not to male job seekers in these domains.

When peoples’ social identities are threatened, their performance also suffers. The researchers found stark evidence for this in their study. Women who were randomly assigned to read one paragraph of a business case for diversity just before a mock job interview performed significantly worse than women who read a fairness case.

“All in all, the business case undercuts an organization’s efforts to recruit and attract more diverse talent pools,” says Georgeac. “The business case is actually a cue of social identity threat despite all of the positive content.”

Tweaking the talk

So here’s the picture: Blanket celebrations of female leaders appear to reduce the urgency to address other forms of gender inequities. And corporate diversity statements are seen as a threat to the people they are meant to reassure. So much for the standard communication strategies.

This research, though, does offer clues to more refined messaging around diversity and inclusion.

One, when highlighting a breakthrough by a woman or visible minority in a leadership position, focus on the commitment to equality rather than the achievement. U.S. President Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris tread this line well when Harris became the first female vice-president of the United States. They acknowledged the moment but emphasized that it was one step on a long road.

Two, make a small linguistic tweak by referring to gender inequalities rather than gender inequality.

Three — and this is a challenging suggestion — reconsider your reliance on the business case for diversity. Some stakeholders may eat the business case up. But, as the research shows, emphasizing it presents yet another barrier to attracting qualified under-represented candidates.

That doesn’t mean organizations should avoid the diversity issue altogether. Make your inclusion programs known. Share your statistics on the organization’s diverse workforce. But don’t justify why such programs exist. Present your commitment as a natural feature of the organization’s mission.

This is a big ask. The vast majority of large firms are attached to the business case for diversity. Indeed, an analysis of the diversity rhetoric of Fortune 500 companies using a machine-learning algorithm found that a little more than 80 percent made a business case and only one percent the fairness case.

It’s almost as if firms are trying to convince themselves that diversity and inclusion is a good idea rather than going out and truly harnessing what diversity has to offer. Going forward, they might want to spend less time making the case for diversity and more time taking an honest look at the power structures that are holding back real progress.

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Alan Morantz

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I write about new management ideas. And other stuff. Author of Where Is Here: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell.

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