AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

Is celebrating gender differences any better of an approach to workplace diversity than turning a blind eye to gender? Research suggests that although an awareness approach has worked for tackling diversity issues for other groups, it doesn't mean this method works for overcoming sexism in the workplace. In fact, it could potentially exacerbate sexism.

In her recent piece How Diversity Messaging Can Undermine Women in the Workplace, Taylor Orth, Stanford University Graduate Dissertation Fellow, dissects ongoing research by assistant professor of organizational development, Ashley Martin. She unpacks the ways in which diversity messaging can actually have an adverse effect by undermining women in the workplace, calling out differences, and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

"In designing such initiatives, one challenge that companies face is finding a way to talk about group differences without justifying inequality or reinforcing sexist or racist stereotypes," she wrote. Orth notes that many well-intentioned programs approach diversity with a “one-size-fits-all” mindset, assuming that strategies that have been successful in reducing racial biases, for example, will work equally well for reducing gender biases. 

Former "color-blind" approaches to inequality that downplay or ignore racial differences, she continued, have been gradually replaced by "awareness" approaches that choose to emphasize, embrace and celebrate our differences. And while that may or even has worked in regards to combatting racism, this new research warns that transposing this ideology onto other groups, like women, may actually increase stereotyping and bias.

"Calling attention to differences between social groups can have disparate implications for how individuals justify instances of race and gender inequality," she wrote. "For whites, racial differences are often perceived as external, so race-awareness strategies tend to increase support for policies that promote equality; for men, gender differences are often perceived as internal, so gender-awareness strategies highlight stereotypes, increase bias, and reinforces men’s influence."

With that said, here are three ways that companies can put forth diversity messaging without accidentally increasing stereotyping and bias.

1. Remember that your diversity messaging isn't one-size-fits-all.

"By showing the divergent effects of awareness ideologies for race and gender relations, I contribute to multiple theories, showing how and why the same diversity approach that works for one group can backfire when applied to another, and caution against holistic approaches to diversity," Martin writes in her research.

What has worked for one minority group at your workplace may not work for another minority group, and you'll have to try different methods to find the right one. Don't push one diversity program that's only reinforcing gender biases just because it's working to create racial diversity and equality.

2. Focus on external differences.

Ultimately, Martin's research suggests diversity programs that shift focus onto external differences in factors like experiences (opportunities, issues, treatment, etc.) rather than internal differences, in nature or biology, will have more success.

"For race, awareness promotes equality by exposing the opportunity-limiting differences facing Blacks, lessening denial of inequality, decreasing support for the status quo, and increasing support for affirmative action policies" Martin explains in her research. "In contrast, for gender, awareness hinders equality by embracing biological, social-role differences, which legitimizes the gender-hierarchy by seeing men as more capable of leadership and success."

Martin's research shows that race blindness serves as a system-justifying ideology, as "it allows Whites to deny inequality between racial groups." Therefore, race awareness exposes racial inequality and thereby lessens support for the status quo. In contrast, however, gender awareness acts on what Martin calls "a unique system-justifying rationale—gender essentialism." This means that gender awareness encourages individuals to embrace the status quo by seeing men and women’s differences as biological, natural and unchangeable, which, thus, legitimizes the status quo.

When awareness is directed toward experiences, however, the endorsement of both race and gender awareness relates to less system justification. So focusing on these external differences can be key.

3. Be aware of unconscious biases.

Always be aware of unconscious biases that might not be totally visible to the naked eye. Since focusing on experiences seems to be the way to go, you need to make sure that you're aware of all the disadvantages that women face, including the unconscious biases that plague workplaces. This means that you shouldn't only consider the gender pay gap and the lack of female leaders across male-dominated industries, but look a little deeper.

Consider the not-so-obvious factors that wrongly set women back in the workplace — everything from the makeup they put on their faces, to how the tones of their voices are judged, to the ways in which their ideas are overshadowed and even stolen and more.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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