Majority Opinions

Why so many diversity policies fail

Crinkled-paper cut-outs of heads in various shades of skin tones.

While surveys show that most Americans value diverse organizations, backlash continues over policies aimed at increasing historically underrepresented groups in higher education, corporations, and elsewhere.

A Berkeley Haas study found that white majority members, regardless of their political ideology or views on diversity, tend to think they will be harmed by policies that increase minority representation—even of win-win policies beneficial to them.

“There are a lot of people who want to get to a more just society, but when the rubber meets the road, they feel they’re going to lose something,” says Derek Brown, PhD 23, who co-authored the paper with Assistant Professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, includes six experiments premised on a prestigious university announcing 50 additional MBA program slots where greater admissions weight would be given to applicants’ demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Although the policy as described would not affect the main applicant pool and would increase the total number of available seats—mathematically increasing everyone’s chances—the non-Latino white participants (and, in one experiment, Asian participants) mistakenly believed it would decrease their chances of admission. In subsequent experiments, the researchers varied how many new seats would go to underrepresented versus majority applicants and how that would affect the program’s overall racial composition. Each time, they controlled for political ideology, racial attitudes, and views on diversity but found they had little impact on how participants saw the policies.

White participants viewed all variations of the diversity policy as decreasing their admission chances, even when it explicitly maintained the proportional status quo or worsened disparities. When the researchers removed the diversity language, white participants still saw the policy as harmful if it provided relatively equal or greater benefits to underrepresented groups. Only when the policy was framed as a “leadership” initiative unrelated to diversity and it gave greater relative benefit to the majority—thereby increasing inequality—did white participants perceive it as helping their chances.

“Majority members paid less attention to whether equal representation was achieved than to whether a status quo that benefited them was preserved,” Brown and Jacoby-Senghor concluded.

Understanding this dynamic has important implications for architects of diversity programs, the researchers say. Even in organizations that tout diversity as a core value, majority group members may see such policies as exclusionary in practice—and bias training is likely insufficient to eliminate backlash to egalitarian efforts.