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Discrimination | Peer-Reviewed Research

Deep Dive

Why Shallow Efforts Against Discrimination Don’t Work

Based on research by Michelle "Mikki" Hebl, Katharine R. O’Brien, Samuel T. McAbee and John R. Rodgers

Why Shallow Efforts Against Discrimination Don’t Work

  • Discrimination-related stress in the workplace is linked to long-term effects on performance and health.
  • Supervisor support can buffer these effects.
  • Organizations need to do more to prevent informal, interpersonal harassment to stop minority outflow from the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

More than one third of Americans have been victims of discrimination at some point in their careers.

And regardless of whether the discrimination is on account of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or physical appearance, for the person affected, research shows, the outcome is usually the same: an increase in stress and a decrease in performance.

Among minority groups, workplace discrimination translates all too often into an outflow of talent. This hurts business in the long run, as workforces and the products and services they create fail to expand their potential reach and expertise level.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where the chronic shortage of women and minorities — the well-documented “leaky pipeline” — stymies heterogeneity in the talent pool.

In the United States and elsewhere, statutory checks and balances regulating hiring procedures and promotions have been designed to correct institutional discrimination in STEM fields. And while that’s all to the good, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl wanted to know more about countermeasures to other types of STEM discrimination. What is happening to identify and mitigate subtle, insidious discrimination that can stigmatize minority groups planning careers in STEM?

Together with colleagues from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Baylor College of Medicine and CUNA Mutual Group, Hebl processed feedback from more than 200 early-career STEM academics surveyed at universities across the United States. Not only does off-the-radar discrimination persist in the workplace, they found, but what is often dismissed as “unimportant complaints,” “molehills” and “minor transgressions” can have a major negative impact on the mental and physical health, well-being and academic performance of those victimized.

“A small body of previous research suggests that subtle behaviors – things like minor incivilities or simple rudeness — can actually have more impact than formal or visible discrimination,” Hebl’s team writes. “Worse still, for these individuals, the negative outcomes can last for years.”

To understand how these behaviors impact long-term, job-related performance as well as health, Hebl and her colleagues designed a series of questionnaires and surveys to capture a range of information from their sample group. The questions measured how excluded or harassed minority STEM academics felt, how much stress they perceived and how frequently they experienced health issues. 

Hebl’s team also looked at the participants’ academic performance, analyzing citations and published papers over a three-year period, and reviewed self-rated feedback on how much commitment or “organizational citizenship” participants felt toward their employers.

When they cross-referenced the results, the team found a causal link between interpersonal discrimination and increased stress levels in minority group members within the sample. That wasn’t all. While the increased stress produced an upswing in reported health issues, it also led to a significant reduction in academic productivity and decreased feelings of belonging or commitment to their universities. In other words, workplace discrimination directly affected performance and motivation. And the effects were still present three years after the initial surveys.

But there was some good news.

Hebl found that when minority group participants had the support of a supervisor or mentor, the effects of being discriminated against were strikingly reduced.

“This is an important finding,” Hebl and her colleagues wrote. “Stress is significantly reduced where there is supervisor support for the individual, acting like a kind of buffer against fall off in performance and health. It shows that those who are being stigmatized for whatever reason benefit tremendously from having supportive colleagues.”

But, the researchers argued, organizations ought to avoid relying on supervisors or academic mentors to assuage the ill effects of discrimination. Instead, the organizations themselves “need to understand how discrimination manifests in health and performance, and proactively pursue strategies and policies that mitigate, if not prevent, these subtle forms of behavior before they occur.”

Beyond government regulations, supportive individuals, upstanding mentors and other responsible coworkers play a disproportionate role in countering the damage caused by discrimination. But until organizations themselves shoulder their responsibilities with formal anti-discrimination procedures and policies, informal social support only skims the surface, Hebl wrote. To access the broadest experience and talent from engineers, scientists, doctors and mathematicians, it’s up to institutions — not individuals — to dive to source of the industry pushing so many to leave.

Mikki Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: O’Brien K. R., McAbee, S. T, Hebl M., & Rodgers, J. R. (2016). The impact of interpersonal discrimination and stress on health and performance for early career STEM academicians. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-11.

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