Sunday, March 27, 2016

Science vs Advocacy: the benefits of diversity

This manuscript is based on the Presidential Address that Alice H. Eagly (Professor of Psychology and of Management at Northwestern University) delivered at the 2015 conference of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, “A Road Less Traveled: Forging Links between Psychological Science and Social Policy,” Washington, DC.
When Passionate Advocates Meet Research on Diversity, Does the Honest Broker Stand a Chance?

Journal of Social Issues, 72: 199–222. doi: 10.1111/josi.12163

Abstract: In an ideal world, social science research would provide a strong basis for advocacy and social policy. However, advocates sometimes misunderstand or even ignore scientific research in pursuit of their goals, especially when research pertains to controversial questions of social inequality. To illustrate the chasm that can develop between research findings and advocates’ claims, this article addresses two areas: (a) the effects of the gender diversity of corporate boards of directors on firms’ financial performance and (b) the effects of the gender and racial diversity of workgroups on group performance. Despite advocates’ insistence that women on boards enhance corporate performance and that diversity of task groups enhances their performance, research findings are mixed, and repeated meta-analyses have yielded average correlational findings that are null or extremely small. Therefore, social scientists should (a) conduct research to identify the conditions under which the effects of diversity are positive or negative and (b) foster understanding of the social justice gains that can follow from diversity. Unfortunately, promulgation of false generalizations about empirical findings can impede progress in both of these directions. Rather than ignoring or furthering distortions of scientific knowledge to fit advocacy goals, scientists should serve as honest brokers who communicate consensus scientific findings to advocates and policy makers in an effort to encourage exploration of evidence-based policy options.
From the paper
... Establishing that the presence of women on corporate boards causes any of the positive or negative outcomes is far more challenging (see Adams, 2015). As in many other domains of nonexperimental research, relatively few researchers have addressed endogeneity in a manner that allows claims about causation (Antonakis, Bendahan, Jacquart, & Lalive, 2010). However, the “business case”—that is, the boldly causal claim that including women on corporate boards improves firms’ financial outcomes, lives on in communications directed to the public and business community (e.g., Committee for Economic Development, 2015), most often supported by citations of the least informative studies, which are those containing only simple group comparisons (e.g., Catalyst, 2004; Desvaux et al., 2007).

... Over the years, a very large research literature has accumulated relating workgroup diversity to group performance, published in academic journals mainly in industrial-organizational psychology and management. These investigators have distinguished two types of diversity: job-related, which pertains to differences in knowledge and expertise related to the problems that work groups are charged with solving, and demographic, which pertains to differences in attributes such as gender, race, and age (e.g., Mannix & Neale, 2005). Research has extensively examined both of these forms of diversity.

Several meta-analyses of the diversity-performance relation have been prominently published, with the latest and most inclusive produced by van Dijk, van Engen, and van Knippenberg (2012). Among this project's 146 studies, there were three types of settings: (a) laboratory experiments (b) field studies, and (c) studies conducted on teams composed of undergraduate or MBA students. These field and student studies generally provided correlational data relating amount of diversity to group performance. The finding that the classification of studies by these three types of settings did not moderate diversity-performance relations eases concerns about endogeneity, given the greater ability of the laboratory experiments to rule out alternative explanations based on uncontrolled variables.

The meta-analysis produced mainly very small average effect sizes: The key overall findings were that demographic diversity yielded a small negative relation to performance outcomes (r = –.02), which was present for both gender diversity (r = –.01) and racial/ethnic diversity (r = –.05); all of these relations were nonsignificant. In contrast, job-related diversity produced a significant, but small, positive relation (r = .05). These findings replicated four prior meta-analyses based on smaller samples of studies (Bell, Villado, Lukasik, Belau, & Briggs, 20100; Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007; Hülsheger, Anderson, & Salgado, 2009; Joshi & Roh, 2009). In addition, a meta-analysis of 68 studies produced a nonsignificant relation between gender diversity and team performance (r = -.01; Schneid, Isidor, Li, & Kabst, 2015). Moreover, these meta-analytic results were generally consistent with earlier narrative reviewers’ cautions that demographic diversity had yielded mixed and inconclusive effects (Harrison & Klein, 2007; Mannix & Neale, 2005; Milliken & Martins, 1996; Williams & O'Reilly, 1998).

... In summary, when aggregated across studies, an extensive research literature on group performance has shown no overall advantage for demographically diverse groups, with a small tendency toward disadvantage, especially on subjective measures of performance. However, these meta-analytic averages encompassed heterogeneous outcomes, whereby some studies did produce positive effects of diversity. Yet, approximately as many studies yielded negative effects, producing average effects that were near zero. In this respect, these findings are similar to the correlations between the representation of women as corporate directors and financial outcomes.
Concluding paragraph
To conclude, this article conveys some ways in which science, advocacy, and policy have not related easily or harmoniously. I have told two somewhat complicated stories, one pertaining to women on corporate boards and the other to workgroup diversity—two domains with extensive social scientific research relating diversity to performance outcomes. Despite the striking lack of research support for the optimistic generalizations about these outcomes that have been widely shared among advocates, policy makers, and the general public, many social scientists with relevant expertise have remained silent. It is time for more social scientists to take stock of what diversity research has produced so far and join those who are addressing the complexities of diversity's effects on group and organizational performance. It is also time for all stakeholders in diversity initiatives to focus on the violations of social justice inherent in the limited access of women and minorities to decision making in most political and corporate contexts.

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