Evidence of past discrimination often surfaces during contemporary discussions about social inequalities. The many prominent allegations of sexual misconduct that fueled the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements drew attention to the long history of sexism, abuse, and discrimination against women. Conversations about racism in the United States cannot be untangled from the country’s legacy of slavery and systemic discrimination.
It is generally accepted that understanding and highlighting past injustices should inform and motivate present-day actions and remedies. But can all this attention being paid to shameful historical inequities also have unintended negative consequences?
Our research investigates how to build broad-based support for programs that seek to remedy gender discrimination in the labor force. Currently women account for only 5.6 percent of CEOs and 21 percent of board seats across all S&P 500 companies. In addressing such inequities, governments and organizations have implemented diversity and equity policies including affirmative action (in the U.S.) and employment equity (in Canada). It is common for these policies, especially in Canada, to reference historical disadvantages of certain groups.
The fact that women were once excluded from a wide variety of educational and employment opportunities, for instance, is often documented in the background information about employment equity policy in Canada. In America, although affirmative action policies no longer explicitly reference historical injustice, redress for past discrimination is central to the original concept. Moreover, in a recent survey of 100 American employees, we found that 58% of male and female employees strongly viewed diversity and equity programs as a means to rectify historical injustices.
Such a link makes intuitive sense. Many organizations and institutions reference past injustices with the intention of making people more sensitive to how historic systems of oppression contribute to present-day inequalities. By drawing on social identity theory, however, we speculated that excessive focus on historical injustices can actually backfire by causing key groups to deny current discrimination and withdraw support for ongoing remediation programs.
Social identity theory posits that people derive some of their sense of identity and self-worth from their group memberships (including gender, race, religion, politics, or even sports teams), and are highly motivated to maintain and protect a positive image of their social groups. Just as an individual’s self-image can be shaken by reflecting on their own misdeeds, threats to social identity may arise when contemplating past misconduct by their group. This threat can lead to defensive behavior that diminishes or deflects perceived criticisms. As the historically-advantaged group, social identity theory predicts men will react defensively when presented with evidence of past injustices suffered by women, the disadvantaged group.
We tested these ideas through our recent research.
The first experiment we conducted involved a sample of 115 undergraduate business students from a Canadian university (59% women) enrolled in a co-operative education program. Prior to their work-term, the students completed an online study in which they read a short historical description of life at the beginning of the 20th century. Half the students read a description that focused on past injustices faced by women in the early 1900s, such as the fact that women could not vote or own property. The other half received a generic discussion of life in an era prior to cellphones and computers without reference to gender inequities. Students were then surveyed on their attitudes regarding the current state of gender discrimination. They were given statements such as, “Women often say they are discriminated against when they aren’t,” and, “Canadian society provides men and women with equal opportunities for achievement.” The students were then asked to rate their level of agreement with each statement on a scale of one to seven with one being “strongly disagree” and seven being “strongly agree.” Finally, we asked them to rate their level of support for an employment equity program targeting women in their own co-op education program.
As predicted, male students given historical evidence of previous discrimination against women reacted in a defensive manner. They were more likely to deny the existence of present-day gender discrimination and expressed lower support for a contemporary employment equity program, as compared to males who read the benign historical snapshot. Female students were inclined to perceive current gender discrimination and support equity programs regardless of which historical snapshot they read, suggesting their opinions were not affected by historical evidence. These results offer initial support for the idea that reminders of historical injustice can backfire by lowering support among the advantaged group.
As business students may lack the work or life experience required to properly gauge the need for employment equity policies, in our next experiment contextualizing past injustice as a rationale for an employment equity policy, we recruited 241 experienced American employees (44% women and 56% men, both with an average age of 37 and 14 years of work experience) and found similar results. Men were more likely to deny the existence of present-day discrimination when presented with an employment equity policy contextualizing past injustices as a rationale than when there was no information about past discrimination against women. This result was again not apparent among women.
In another study with 335 undergraduate business students (53% women), we aimed to provide additional evidence that men’s gender-based social identity was threatened by including a measure of collective self-esteem or the degree to which people feel good about belonging to their gender group. Using the same set of experimental materials as we had in the first study, we found that exposure to past injustices through the historical snapshots lowered men’s collective self-esteem, while women’s collective self-esteem was unaffected. Further, as men’s collective self-esteem dropped, so did their sympathy for gender-based employment equity programs.
These converging results suggest invoking past discrimination can threaten men’s social identity and undermine their perceptions of current levels of discrimination, consequently lowering their support for policies meant to ameliorate this situation.
What might be done to mitigate these negative effects? Must we sidestep these discussions of current groups’ shameful history, sacrificing its capacity to enrich our understanding for fear of triggering defensive backlash? Rather than simply avoiding discussions of the past, we reason that historically-advantaged groups (men, in these studies) might be more open to information about past injustices if there was a way to lessen the threat to their social identity.
To test this idea, in another study with a sample of 218 undergraduate business students (50% women) we aimed to mitigate the social identity threat that comes with reading about past injustices. After reading about historical gender inequities, 55 male and 48 female participants were given additional material that detailed progress made in women’s rights in more recent eras. We found male respondents were less likely to deny the existence of current gender discrimination if they were presented with additional information about more recent improvements in women’s rights, as compared to men who did not receive facts about progress toward equity. Focusing on how women’s status has improved over time thus appears to deflect the threat to men’s social identity and makes them more likely to support present-day employment equity policies. Reminders of history need not always backfire.
This work has important implications for policy-makers and organizations seeking to implement diversity and equity policies. Despite the intuitive appeal of using past injustices to bolster the case for such initiatives, this approach can undermine progress by threatening the social identity of key participants. As the efficacy of diversity and equity programs depends on establishing broad-based support, getting both men and women to view these policies positively should be considered an important pre-condition for success.
To bolster support from men, our research suggests equity-based policies should present positive information on recent progress alongside evidence of past discrimination. Such a framing technique reduces the risk men will respond defensively and undermine the policies. While such a male-centric approach may seem ironic given the circumstances, protecting the self-esteem of the advantaged group appears crucial to effectively achieving buy-in for policies designed to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups. In recognizing the progress that has been made, men are able to shift their focus from self-protection to open acknowledgement of the problem, and in this way lend support to collaborative solutions.
But a few caveats are in order. As discussed, three of our four experiments involved university students, who tend to have limited work experience. And yet our one experiment involving experienced employees delivered similar results. In addition, several of our key effects reveal only small shifts in attitude. However, because people are often mindful of socially desirable responses about gender equality (constraining their tendency to change their attitudes dramatically), even small effect sizes can be extremely meaningful. In a real-world context, subtle biases in judgement regarding different job candidates can have large cumulative effects over time with a significant effect on gender equality. While we cannot generalize beyond these specific results for the one historically-disadvantaged group we studied (women in the workforce), we speculate these effects may be similar for other disadvantaged groups.
Taken together, these results offer important lessons for how to present and implement programs intended to remediate historical discrimination, such as affirmative action or employment equity. Our work shows that reminders of past injustices can have an unexpectedly powerful and negative effect on support for present-day diversity and equality policies in the workplace by adversely affecting men’s self-esteem. Our work also shows that it is possible to mitigate these negative effects, and that such mitigation need not ignore the past. We can learn from the past, recognize recent progress, and continue to move forward in acknowledging and addressing discrimination in the workplace.
Original Article in HBR: https://hbr.org/2020/02/research-bringing-up-past-injustices-make-majority-groups-defensive?autocomplete=true
by Ivona Hideg and Anne Wilson February 05, 2020