Published on August 19, 2021
Stereotypes are persistent and pervasive in society. Due to its subconscious nature, sometimes they seem unconscious, appearing without our awareness and difficult to control. Indeed, they are mental shortcuts that enable us to process information quickly, albeit sometimes at a cost of accuracy. Social category stereotypes are built on years of exposure to stereotypical portrayals of groups in society. Rather than considering the traits and merits of people as individuals, we may instead consciously or unconsciously rely on stereotypes to form judgments about individuals that may be inaccurate 1.
In a diverse workplace setting, stigmatised stereotypes often create uncomfortable situations in both intra and inter-relationships with strong negative consequences for the whole organisation. Certainly, workplaces that embrace diversity are a positive catalyst for the integration of marginalised and minority groups, showing high social responsibility, empowering their employees, and enhancing their corporate image 2.
Diversity refers to the differences between individuals on any attributes that may lead to the perception that another person is different from the self. These can be readily observed traits such as age, gender identity, race, and ethnicity, but also less obvious traits such as sexual orientation, and religion. Diversity in the workplace means that members from different groups across different social divisions are represented in the organisation. A diverse workforce contributes to a competitive advantage in recruitment, customer service, and research and innovation and has been linked with improvements in employee job satisfaction, creativity, problem-solving skills, commitment, and retention 3. Furthermore, research has positively correlated the diversity of an organisation’s leadership team with more diverse perspectives, resulting in better strategic decisions, more resilience and innovation, and increased ability to adapt to change 4.
However, the positive outcomes that arise from a diverse workforce are only achieved if a proper inclusion of the different social groups occurs. Without inclusion conflicts between groups arise, leading to work dissatisfaction, lower organisational commitment, job satisfaction, work motivation and performance, and increase turnover 2. In this sense, inclusion refers to the degree to which employees perceive themselves as being a valued member of the organisation, something that occurs when their needs for belongingness and uniqueness are satisfied. Their needs are consequently influenced by organisation policies, behaviours and operating practices 3.
In the workplace, there are three general triggers that lead to identity threat of marginalised and minority social groups. They are (1) the numerical dominance of the non-stigmatised group; (2) the devaluation of stigmatised groups; and (3) emphasis on domains associated with the dominant group 2.
Numerical dominance of the non-stigmatised group
This results from basic group processes: people categorise themselves and others into ingroups and outgroups based on observable similarities and differences. Being different from others along a specific dimension (e.g., gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and disability) makes that dimension more salient and increases the expectation that one will be viewed in terms of that dimension. Negative stereotypes associated with that dimension then also become more salient and in turn affect outcomes.
Being seen as someone from an outgroup leads to a personal increase in cognitive and physiological vigilance, lower organisational commitment, lower job satisfaction, lower work motivation and performance, and increase turnover.
For some groups, numerical underrepresentation is a given, due to their actual numerical minority status in society (e.g., sexual minorities, people with disabilities) 2.
Devaluation of stigmatised groups
Devaluation can arise from clear discrimination and prejudice, by explicitly displaying negative attitudes towards a group, or through smaller subtle cues. In an organisational context, these subtle discriminatory cues are more prevalent, being often unintentional or not openly displayed. However, these subtle cues can trigger experiences of social identity threat, increasing a person’s vigilance for ambiguous cues, anxiety, mind wandering, and negative thinking. These together lead to suboptimal working memory, decrease in performance and poor well-being. Research in an organisational context has shown that experiences with stereotype threats negatively affect career aspirations and career confidence.
Examples of discriminatory subtle cues include cues that make a specific identity and accompanying stereotypes salient (e.g., when physical access to important company locations is difficult for employees in a wheelchair) or from cues that signal the (under)representation of a stigmatised group (e.g., company photos showing only White males). Devaluation can also come from more general cues that signal an organisation’s diversity beliefs and values (e.g., value for meritocracy that may fail to acknowledge structural inequalities) or from organisational structures and policies (e.g., colourblind policies that may fail to recognise the existence and value of different cultural identities) 2.
Emphasis on domains associated with the dominant group
This refers to domains or characteristics perceived to better fit the non-stigmatised group. For example, this occurs to women through job descriptions that use more masculine-themed words (e.g., emphasising dominance, competitiveness). Men too are perceived as not fitting HEED (Health care, Elementary Education, and the Domestic) domains that emphasise traditionally female qualities such as being nurturing, helping others, and being emotionally involved. These negative associations immediately create an expectation of underperformance and an unwelcoming work environment for members of stigmatised groups 2.
While a diverse workforce with a wide-ranging representation of marginalised and minorities is extremely important in an organisation, its positive outcomes won’t be achieved if these groups are numerically underrepresented, if the presence of negative stereotypes and devaluation is not abolished, and the emphasis on domains associated with the dominant group is not addressed. The inclusion of different social cohorts is essential for the success of such diverse workplaces.
We believe that a culture that embraces true diversity and inclusion starts at the top, and isn’t treated as an HR initiative. Commitment from the leadership teams is essential to guide companies through the culture shift of embracing diversity and inspiring inclusiveness. Find out how we can help shape your diversity, equality and inclusion with our Vibe ED&I survey platform.
- Edward H. Chang, Katherine L. Milkman, (2020). Improving decisions that affect gender equality in the workplace. Organizational Dynamics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2019.03.002.
- Van Laar, C., Meeussen, L., Veldman, J., Van Grootel, S., Sterk, N., Jacobs,C. Coping With Stigma in the Workplace: Understanding the Role of Threat Regulation, Supportive Factors, and Potential Hidden Costs. Frontiers in Psychology (2019). DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01879
- Perales, F., Ablaza, C., Tomaszewski, W. et al. You, Me, and Them: Understanding Employees’ Use of Trans-Affirming Language within the Workplace. Sex Res Soc Policy (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-021-00592-9
- Madsen SR, Townsend A, Scribner RT. (2020). Strategies That Male Allies Use to Advance Women in the Workplace. The Journal of Men’s Studies. doi:10.1177/1060826519883239