Diversity structures can create illusions of fairness

Diversity structures must be evidence-based to effectively eliminate inequities and create more just environments for underrepresented groups.

Reviewed by Sakshee Chawla


​​Most organizations use diversity structures including targeted recruitment and promotion, diversity training, committees, and managers to promote diversity and create a positive environment for underrepresented groups. These structures may, however, create a mere “illusion of fairness.” The authors conducted several experiments using four types of diversity structures across several forms of discrimination to test the following hypotheses: 

  • Hypothesis 1: The mere presence of organizational diversity structures may cause high-status group members to perceive those organizations to be more procedurally fair despite evidence that underrepresented groups have been unfairly disadvantaged within these organizations.
  • Hypothesis 2: The “illusion of fairness” results in high-status group members legitimizing the status quo by becoming less sensitive to discrimination.
  • Hypothesis 3: The “illusion of fairness” results in high-status group members reacting more harshly towards underrepresented group members who assert discrimination.

Evidence suggests that organizations can use diversity structures to promote the appearance of egalitarianism without any evidence. For instance, an examination of over 1,000 federal civil rights legal decisions over 35 years found that judges used the mere presence of diversity structures as evidence of compliance with civil rights law, rarely questioning whether organizations actually provided protection or fairness. Moreover, the Supreme Court ruled that organizations could be absolved of discriminatory charges if the employee was aware of an organization’s diversity structures but did not use them. These findings and rulings are problematic in the absence of empirical evidence on the actual efficacy of these structures. A rare 30-year-long study of over 700 organizations found that some diversity structures were associated with decreased racial diversity because complying with diversity-related pressure can decrease support for diversity and increase prejudice. Since many organizations in the United States use diversity structures that are untested and ineffective in reducing bias and increasing diversity, this study is an important step towards examining their effectiveness in increasing diversity, promoting equity, or reducing bias.

Cheryl R. Kaiser is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington. Ines Jurcevic, also at the University of Washington, serves as the Assistant Professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. Laura M. Brady is the Associate Research Scientist and the Executive Director of the Research for Indigenous Social Action and Equity (RISE) Center at the University of Michigan. Brenda Major is a Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara, Tessa L. Dover is the Assistant Professor of Applied Social Psychology at Portland State University, and Jenessa R. Shapiro is the Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of California Los Angeles. 

Methods and Findings

The experiments in this study ultimately suggest that the presence of diversity structures in an organization causes high-status group members to automatically assume that members of underrepresented groups are treated more fairly. The presumption of procedural fairness leads to the underestimation of discrimination and negative reactions towards those who claim discrimination. The methods and findings across each of the experiments are outlined below: 

Experiment 1 – Do Diversity Structures Create an Illusion of Fairness?

Methods: The experiment studies the impact of diversity structures on perceptions of fairness by inviting 245 white American participants to learn about a company by reading background information, the diversity or mission statement, and the company’s promotion demographics. Some participants read that minorities and whites received promotions and equal rates, while some read that white employees were promoted three times as often as minoritized employees. Participants also viewed a fabricated New York Times article describing a Black employee who sued the organization for plausible, but not certain racial discrimination. Next, participants completed a five-item survey asking about their perception of the company’s fairness toward minorities.

Results: The experiment provided support for the “illusion of fairness” hypothesis, finding that participants did not see unequal promotion practices as evidence that the company was unfair towards minorities. Instead, they assumed that employees may have had different qualifications that justified unequal promotion practices. This issue was addressed in the next experiment. 

Experiment 2 – Do Diversity Structures Lead White Men to Legitimize Sex Discrimination in Hiring? 

Methods: This experiment examined the implications of the “illusion of fairness” through sixty-six white men participants, who self-identified as high social status and did not associate themselves or their groups with the concept of diversity. Participants read background information on a company that required all managers to complete either a “Fostering Employee Success” or “Fostering Women’s Success” training. Participants then summarized the mission statement and examined applicants with distinctly female or distinctly male names for a client manager position. Data on applicants’ work experience and qualifications were also included and matched across sexes, so that for every male applicant, there was a female applicant with the same credentials. Participants were then shown a “short list” of applicants selected for interviews among which 70 percent of participants were male despite the equal credentials across sexes. After reviewing the short list, participants were surveyed on their support for women seeking judicial litigation to address discrimination and their overall perception of procedural justice for women. 

Results: Experiment 2 found that the presence of a gender-specific training program caused men to express less support for litigating what was objectively an unjust outcome for women. This study eliminated the effects of assumptions about varying levels of credentials from Experiment 1. 

Experiment 3 – Do Diversity Structures Cause White Men to Legitimize Sex Discrimination in Salaries 

Methods: Thirty-nine white male undergraduate students from the University of California, Santa Barbara between the ages of 18 and 23 were randomly assigned to read about a company that either had a diversity statement and training programs focused on women and minorities or a mission statement and generic diversity training. Next, they were asked to evaluate the company’s managerial promotion and pay practices by reviewing personnel information that indicated that women earned 81 percent of men at the same company holding tenure and qualifications to be constant. Participants then assessed procedural fairness and discerned if there was sex discrimination in the company. 

Results: Men who read that the company had a diversity statement and specific trainings rated the company to be more procedurally fair and were significantly less likely to say that sex discrimination occurred compared to men in the control group. 

Experiment 4 – Do Diversity Awards Cause White Men to Legitimize Sexism? 

Methods: Sixty-one white male participants read an excerpt adapted from a New York Times article describing a class action sex discrimination lawsuit against Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation for paying women less than men and denying promotions, especially women who became pregnant or had children. Participants in the control group were not made aware that the company was named one of the 100 best companies in the U.S. by Working Mother magazine, a credential influenced by internally-provided policies and data with minimal external validation. The participants were asked to indicate the extent to which the plaintiffs’ case was valid and their perceptions of  procedural justice for women. 

Results: The presence of a diversity structure caused these high-status group members to view the organization to be fairer and to perceive the plaintiff’s discrimination claim as less valid. Since participants read about an actual sex discrimination case, findings may characterize how people perceive and react to discrimination cases in everyday life. 

Experiment 5 – Do Diversity Policies Create Animosity Toward Discrimination Claimants? 

Methods: Participants were 150 white adults between 18 to 81 years of age and composed of 62 percent female and 38 percent male. Participants were randomly assigned to read about a company with either a mission or diversity statement. Next, they read a fabricated New York Times article describing a lawsuit against the company by a Black employee. Participants then reported their assessment of the plaintiff’s discrimination claim. 

Results: The presence of diversity structures led white individuals to regard minoritized employees’ discrimination claims as less valid. It also made them more likely to dislike and derogate a minoritized employee who brought discrimination claims.


This study demonstrated how individuals and organizations may use the presence of diversity structures as indicators of equity, even if these structures have not produced evidence of equitable outcomes. This research, therefore, encourages individuals and organizations to be vigilant of the “illusion of fairness” and use data to assess the efficacy of organizational practice. This research also emphasizes the need for legal institutions to recognize discrimination and not discount discrimination claims brought by underrepresented groups. 

Future research should examine these phenomena within actual organizations (e.g., corporations, social organizations) rather than hypothetical conditions and explore the role of the biases across different departments and specializations (e.g., human resource personnel) within an organization. Since the study relied on self-reported responses, future research should also explore whether perceptions observed in these experiments translate to actual behavior towards underrepresented groups who claim discrimination.

The study does not imply that diversity structures cannot be effective or that they should be eliminated. Instead, diversity structures are an important acknowledgement that discrimination and prejudice exist and should be alleviated by using evidence-based diversity structures to create a more just environment for underrepresented groups. 

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