It’s time to address the fact that we seem to like the idea of workplace diversity more than the reality (even though diverse workplaces make us more productive).

A study conducted by researchers at MIT, UC Berkeley, and George Washington University found that gender diversity in the office meant significantly greater profits but lower satisfaction among employees.

The researchers used survey and revenue data spanning eight years from a professional services firm with over 60 offices (both in the U.S. and abroad).

The firm had some offices that were all male and some that were all female, with most falling somewhere between these two extremes. Employees were asked the following four questions, choosing from multiple choice answers:

1) The company provides a working environment that is accepting of ethnic, lifestyle and gender differences.

2) Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with your company as a place to work?

3) Morale in my office is generally…

4) There is good cooperation among people in my office.

The researchers note that it’s possible employees who agree with the first question are doing so because their workplaces are diverse in ways other than gender (such as ethnicity or sexual preference). However, they conclude that it’s more likely that “there is a distinction between a company which provides an environment accepting of diversity and one which has actual diversity.”

When employees agreed with the first question (i.e. an office was perceived to be accepting of diversity, even if it wasn’t actually diverse), satisfaction, morale, and cooperation tended to be high. However, when workplaces were actually more diverse in terms of gender (the only measure of diversity the researchers had access to), they scored lower among the last three questions (satisfaction, morale, and cooperation).

Interestingly, the offices that did have actual diversity were much more productive, while those that employees felt were accepting of diversity did not have any noticeable increase in productivity.

“Going from an office that is either all male or all female to an office split equally between the sexes would be associated with a revenue gain of 45%”

So how do we explain this apparent contradiction? Why does diversity mean less satisfaction, morale, and cooperation but more profit, at least when it comes to gender?

The authors of the study use a baseball metaphor to try to explain it: “A baseball team composed entirely of catchers might have a high provision of social goods—they give each other tips on catching the knuckler, they borrow each other mitts, they go out for beers—but ultimately they will surpass even the ’62 Mets in futility on the field.”

What’s clear for baseball (a group made up of only one type of player may get along really well but won’t be the most effective team), should be clear for the workplace as well. And yet, many times hiring for “cultural fit” simply means picking people based on who you’d like to hang out with outside of work, which can lead to less diversity and, subsequently, less productivity.

So where does this leave us? Must we simply choose between productivity and social capital (measured by satisfaction, morale, and cooperation)?

Thankfully, there are ways to increase social capital without sacrificing diversity. One such method is to pay attention to the personalities of coworkers and employees. A study out of the University of Wisconsin revealed that personality is linked with one’s style of conflict management. Understanding how those around you tend to handle interpersonal conflict can make communication clearer and increase cooperation.

Regardless, it’s clear that we need to confront some of our potentially misinformed assumptions. An office that’s perceived as open to diversity isn’t necessarily diverse, and harmonious day-to-day operations don’t necessarily mean greater productivity; in fact, they may indicate the opposite.

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