Diversity Is Whatever You Want It to Be

The mission statements of colleges, corporations, and seemingly every organization excpet the KKK involve some kind of commitment to diversity. But the details usually end there, and that begs an important question: How do people define “diversity”? Is there some kind of objective measure?

A new study led by Miguel Unzueta of UCLA suggests the answer is no. Specifically, the study found that those who don’t value diversity will find ways to see a world where enough diversity already exists, while those who do value diversity will find ways to see a world that doesn’t have enough of it.

Unzueta and his colleagues first measured subjects’ “Social Dominance Orientation” (SDO), a measure of how much a person does not value an egalitarian society. They then presented subjects with a description of a fictional company, but they varied whether the company was high or low in racial heterogeneity (mostly white, or with significant numbers of whites, African-Americans, Latino, and Asians) and occupational heterogeneity (mostly engineers, or with a significant number of engineers, accountants, consultants, and marketers). Finally, they asked subjects for their perceptions of the company’s diversity and support for affirmative action policies.

The researchers found that when the company had low racial heterogeneity, only those who didn’t value egalitarianism (high SDO) judged that high occupational heterogeneity contributed to diversity. In other words, only those who didn’t care about egalitarianism believed occupational diversity could make a racially non-diverse organization more diverse. On the other hand, when the company’s racial heterogeneity was high, only those who valued egalitarianism judged that low occupational heterogeneity contributed to a lack of diversity. In this instance, only those who cared about egalitarianism believed occupational diversity could make a racially diverse organization less diverse. Or to put it more eloquently:

Our findings suggest that diversity may be in the eye of the beholder. Participants in this study altered their conception of diversity to include or exclude a nonracial dimension (i.e., occupational heterogeneity) in a manner that allowed them to legitimize attitudes toward policies that affect racial hierarchy.

One thing the study seems to confirm is that when an organization isn’t truly committed to diversity, any language proposing such a commitment is total bullshit because the organization will likely find sufficient diversity in the status quo. The study also suggests that if an organization is truly committed to diversity, an official diversity goal could be an endless and unattainable proposition. For example, even if an organization’s diversity goal appears to most neutral observers to have been thoroughly achieved, the organization may continue to inefficiently worked towards more diversity because it repeatedly finds places where diversity is lacking. (Imagine a university that expends a lot of resources to get Hispanic enrollment up, but then becomes obsessed with not having enough Scandinavians or Pacific Islanders.)


Unzueta, M., Knowles, E., & Ho, G. (2012). Diversity Is What You Want It to Be: How Social-Dominance Motives Affect Construals of Diversity Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611426727

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