Challenges in Diversity Management: How Do Stereotypes Affect Us?

Acclaimed social psychologist Claude Steele shares insightful research on stereotypes in his latest book, "WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us."

What effect can stereotypes have on your efforts for successful diversity management? Dr. Claude Steele, Stanford University School of Education Dean, former provost of Columbia University and recognized leader in the field of social psychology, spoke at a DiversityInc learning event on how negative stereotypes perpetuate the achievement gap between Blacks and whites and limit the workforce talent potential.

Reprinted from WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. Copyright © 2010 by Claude M. Steele with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This book is about what my colleagues and I call identity contingencies—the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, Black, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a cancer patient and so on. Generally speaking, contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with in order to get what you want or need in a situation. In the Chicagoland of my youth, in order to go swimming at the public pool I had to restrict my pool going to Wednesday afternoons. That's a contingency. What makes this an identity contingency is that the people involved had to deal with it because they had a particular social identity in the situation. Other people didn't have to deal with it, just the people who had the same identity I had.

How do identity contingencies influence us? Some constrain our behavior down on the ground, like restricted access to a public swimming pool. Others, just as powerful, influence us more subtly, not by constraining behavior on the ground but by putting a threat in the air.

Consider the experience of Brent Staples, now a columnist for The New York Times, but then a psychology graduate student at the University of Chicago, a young African-American male dressed in informal student clothing walking down the streets of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. In his own words:

I became an expert in the language of fear. Couples locked arms or reached for each other's hand when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street. People who were carrying on conversations went mute and stared straight ahead, as though avoiding my eyes would save them … I'd been a fool. I'd been walking the streets grinning good evening at people who were frightened to death of me. I did violence to them by just being. How had I missed this … I tried to be innocuous but didn't know how … I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked … Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet—and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The tension drained from people's bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

Staples was dealing with a phantom, a bad stereotype about his race that was in the air on the streets of Hyde Park—the stereotype that young African-American males in this neighborhood are violence prone. People from other groups in other situations might face very different stereotypes—about lacking math ability rather than being violence prone, for example—but their predicaments would be the same. When they were in situations where those stereotypes could apply to them, they understood that one false move could cause them to be reduced to that stereotype, to be seen and treated in terms of it. That's stereotype threat, a contingency of their identity in these situations.

Evidence of the Strength of Stereotype Threat

We aren't islands: Our life-shaping choices and critical performances can be affected by incidental features of our environments, even as we have little awareness of those features.

We had evidence that these cues, and the threat they caused, could impair performance and even make a person less interested in a career path. But we lacked direct evidence that incidental cues make people feel they don't belong in an actual setting, or that they can't trust the setting.

My colleague, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and I came up with a simple experiment to find out. We gave samples of Black and white respondents a lifelike newsletter ostensibly from a Silicon Valley company and asked them, after they'd read it thoroughly, to rate how much they felt they would belong in a company like that, and how much they would trust it. To see whether incidental features of the company, presumably by signaling possible identity contingencies in this workplace, would affect people's sense of belonging and trust there, we made up different newsletters—newsletters that included different company features—and then compared their effect on people's sense of belonging and trust.

Some of the newsletters included photographs of daily life that depicted a small number of minorities (Blacks, Latinos and Asians) in the company. In other newsletters, these photographs depicted a larger number of minorities in the company. We wanted to learn the effect of another cue as well: the company's stated policy toward diversity. Some of the newsletters therefore included a prominent article stating that the company was strongly committed to "color-blindness"— defined as treating people, and trying to foster their welfare, as individuals. And some of the newsletters included a prominent article stating that the company was strongly committed to "valuing diversity"—defined as valuing the different perspectives and resources that people from different backgrounds bring to the workplace.

It was a simple procedure, and portable, too. We could hand out the newsletters to different samples of Black and white respondents—to college students in the laboratory for sure, but also to business-school students in a cafeteria, to an organization of Black professionals at a TGIF mixer and to perfectly innocent people riding the commuter train between Palo Alto and San Francisco. We used all of these different samples, and for all of them we examined the effect of the same two cues—critical mass of minorities and diversity policy—on how much they felt they would belong in the company and trust it.

The results were strong for virtually every sample we studied. White respondents (depicted as the majority group in our newsletters) felt they would belong in the company and trusted the company no matter what cues the newsletter contained—regardless of whether it depicted a small or moderate number of minorities in the company (the highest percentage of minorities we depicted was 33 percent) and of whether the company had a color-blind or valuing diversity policy. Majority status, inside and outside the company, allowed a sense of belonging.

Black respondents, however, counted. When the company was depicted as having a moderate number of minorities, they trusted it and felt they would belong in it as much as white respondents did. And they felt this way regardless of the company's diversity policy. Critical mass laid their vigilance to rest.

But when the company was depicted as having a low number of minorities, Blacks' trust and sense of belonging were more conditional. Diversity policy became critical. Interestingly, the color-blind policy—perhaps America's dominant approach to these matters—didn't work. It engendered less trust and belonging. It was as if Blacks couldn't take colorblindness at face value when the number of minorities in the company was small. But importantly, and just as interestingly, Blacks did not mistrust the company when it espoused a valuing-diversity policy. With that policy in place, they trusted the company and believed they could belong in it, even when it had few minorities. The practical lesson here is that both critical mass and an approach that values what diversity can bring to a setting may go some distance in making minority identities feel more comfortable there.

The findings also reveal something more general: When people are appraising identity threat, one cue can shape the interpretation of another. A policy that explicitly valued diversity led Black respondents to overlook the low number of minorities in the company, a cue that otherwise bothered them considerably. And depicting a larger number of minorities in the company led them to overlook concerns they would otherwise have had about a color-blind diversity policy. The meaning of one cue, then, depended on what other cues were also present.

Herein may lie a principle of remedy: If enough cues in a setting can lead members of a group to feel "identity safe," it might also neutralize the impact of other cues in a setting that could otherwise threaten them.

The studies Valerie and I did opened a possibility: to make a setting identity safe, perhaps you don't need to change everything, eradicate every possible identity threatening cue, for example. Perhaps you could do it with a few critical changes, which by assuring a critical degree of identity safety could reduce the threatening meaning of other cues.


WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele was published in May by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. It is available at or wherever books are sold for $25.95.


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