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Study: People Like The <em>Idea</em> Of Workplace Diversity More Than Actual Diversity

A new study found that while gender diversity in the workplace leads to more productivity, employees report higher levels of satisfaction in homogeneous settings. closemore
A new study found that while gender diversity in the workplace leads to more productivity, employees report higher levels of satisfaction in homogeneous settings.

Diversity in the workplace is often something employees say they want, but it turns out workers may actually prefer a homogeneous environment. That's the finding of a new study on gender diversity in the workplace.

So does diversity in the workplace matter?

In short, yes. The study also found that gender diversity can help a company's bottom line and lead to more revenue.

According to MIT economist Sara Ellison, who co-authored the study, “Having a more diverse set of employees means you have a more diverse set of skills” which “could result in an office that functions better.”

The researchers focused on answering two questions: How does diversity affect the "social capital" (cooperation, trust and workplace satisfaction) of employees? And how does diversity affect the company's performance?For the study, the researchers looked at eight years of employee surveys and revenue data from a Boston-based company with offices in the U.S. and abroad. The company’s offices ranged in size from just a few employees to nearly 100 at their headquarters. The gender makeup of the company's offices also varied — some offices were all male or all female and some offices had both men and women. The company administered anonymous employee satisfaction surveys each year from 1995 to 2002, which gave the researchers data on office satisfaction, cooperation and morale.

Though the data is now more than a decade old, Ellison believes the findings would still hold up today.

A new study found that while gender diversity in the workplace leads to more productivity, employees report higher levels of satisfaction in homogeneous settings. (Phil Whitehouse/Flickr)
A new study found that while gender diversity in the workplace leads to more productivity, employees report higher levels of satisfaction in homogeneous settings. (Phil Whitehouse/Flickr)

“The more homogeneous offices have higher levels of social capital. But the interesting twist is that … higher levels of social capital are not important enough to cause those offices to perform better. The employees might be happier, they might be more comfortable, and these might be cooperative places, but they seem to perform less well.”

The study also found that shifting from an all male or all female office to one that is evenly split along gender lines could increase revenue by about 41 percent.

In addition to looking at the effects of workplace diversity, researchers also looked at the perception workplace diversity.

“In offices where people thought the firm was accepting of diversity, they were happier and more cooperative,” Ellison said. “But that didn’t translate into any effect on office performance. People may like the idea of a diverse workplace more than they like actual diversity in the workplace.”

But some people believe that finding paints with too broad a brush.

"It is a pretty broad statement to say that people prefer a gender-homogeneous environment,"said Linda Moulton, the former CEO of Tru Corporation, a technology product manufacturing company based in Peabody. "Everybody gravitates to a comfort zone of familiarity, but my view would be that that’s quite superficial."

Moulton said she believes the gender preference issues highlighted in the study may be generational.

"I think [the gender preference] probably disappears fairly quickly in the generation coming along," Moulton said. “You look at work environments like Google, PayPal, and others that are diverse by gender, language, color ... I would guess that if a study was done in those environments that people would have no particular bias and no particular preference because they are no longer accustomed, as that older generation is, to having a gender distinction being made in all facets of life."

Moulton, who also spent several years working in financial services, said she never experienced any gender-related issues in the mostly male-dominated offices she worked in during her career. She said she would also like to see how company type, education levels and income levels play a role in in employees' workplace preferences.

Since the researchers focused on a single company, the scope of the study is limited. Researcher Ellison said she welcomes more research on the topic. In an email, she said she "would love to see whether the results on improved financial performance in gender-diverse groups would hold up at other firms and in other settings."

Zeninjor Enwemeka Digital Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter at WBUR, covering all things relevant to people in Greater Boston.

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