The Large-Scale Confusion About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Guides & Reports Carl-Johan Holmberg

Recruiting Lab Notes

More and more organisations are implementing policies to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In many cases, diversity is defined based on the statutory grounds for discrimination (e.g., sex, ethnicity, and disability). The DEI efforts are often motivated by good intentions such as increasing competence and broadening perspectives. However, behind the noble intentions hide a lot of prejudices.

Key Points

  • Organisations have shifted focus from anti-discrimination to actively hiring people from different backgrounds
  • There is a prejudiced assumption that mixing people with different demographics is a recipe for organisational success
  • Contrary to what they seek to achieve, DEI initiatives risk increasing discrimination and reducing organisational performance

Discrimination in Recruitment and its Negative Impact on Organisations

Although illegal, discrimination against certain groups remains a major problem in recruitment. For example, studies in Canada and Norway have shown that wheelchair users are about 50% less likely to be invited to a job interview than non-wheelchair users, despite being equally competent.1,2 A study conducted in Sweden found that job applications with a Swedish-sounding name received 50% more callbacks for a job interview compared to applications with a Middle Eastern-sounding name, even though the skills presented in the applications were identical.3

In addition to the legal and ethical problems this discrimination entails, there is a risk that people who are well suited for a job are opted out based on irrelevant characteristics (e.g., disability and ethnicity). Put simply, organisations have a financial motive to reduce discrimination in recruitment procedures because there will then be a larger talent pool to tap into.

From Anti-Discrimination to DEI

In many countries, discrimination in recruitment processes has been prohibited for several decades. In recent years, there has been a notable shift in organisational focus – from addressing anti-discrimination to actively recruiting individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. Here are some quotes from contemporary DEI initiatives:

“By 2030, at least half of our workforce should be either women or people of colour.”.

“We want to strengthen our competitiveness by employing young and disabled people.”. 

A common belief is that mixing people of different ethnicities, genders, ages, etcetera, will magically make a team perform better. Scientific studies have shown that this is not the case. For example, a meta-analysis showed that demographic diversity, such as sex, race, and age, is not positively related to team performance.4 Why would it be? The assumption that a demographically diverse team will perform better suggests that people would possess certain skills and characteristics just because they are of a certain sex or have a disability. Such prejudices are the very reason we have anti-discrimination laws. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. shared a dream in which his “... four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”.

Looking at the contemporary DEI initiatives, it seems that the prejudices are as strong now as they were 60 years ago. The difference is that, back then, it was assumed that certain skin colours made people incompetent, whereas today, it is believed that the same skin colours make people competent.

The Ignorant Assumption That There Are No Group Differences

If we eliminated all biases and created inclusive recruitment processes, the personnel composition in organisations would reflect the demographics of the larger society, right? The answer is no. It is not only organisations’ recruitment processes that determine the demographic composition of employees.

There are significant group differences that also play a role. For example, one of the largest known psychological sex differences is that women tend to be interested in working with people, while men tend to be interested in working with things. The difference is so large that if you take a randomly selected man and a randomly selected woman, the probability that the woman is the one most interested in working with people is 75%.5 Such group differences already occur in early childhood, where girls tend to have a preference for human-like toys (e.g., dolls), while boys tend to have a preference for construction and transportation toys (e.g., cars).6,7,8

Regardless of what causes these group differences (nature, nurture, or a combination of both), the fact that they exist makes it naive to believe that DEI initiatives will generate a personnel composition that reflects the demographics of the larger society.

What Actually Matters

Regarding individual differences, among the best predictors of work performance are general mental ability and conscientiousness.9,10 Looking at a job applicant’s gender or age is not a very good way of deriving information about such abilities and characteristics.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In their eagerness to achieve diversity, organisations risk creating more discrimination and impairing their competence and competitiveness. By mitigating discrimination, creating inclusive recruitment processes, and focusing on the abilities and characteristics that are relevant to perform the job, organisations can benefit from people from all backgrounds. However, this will not result in all groups being equally represented in every organisation.

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Large-Scale Confusion The Prejudiced Pursuit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (5)



1 Bellemare, C., Goussé, M., Lacroix, G., & Marchand, S. (2019). Physical disability, discrimination, and public subsidies: evidence from a field experiment controlling for workplace accessibility. Working Paper.

2 Bjørnshagen, V., & Ugreninov, E. (2021). Disability disadvantage: experimental evidence of hiring discrimination against wheelchair users. European Sociological Review, 37(5), 818-833.

​​3 Carlsson, M., & Rooth, D. O. (2007). Evidence of ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labor market using experimental data. Labour Economics, 14(4), 716-729. 

4 Bell, S. T., Villado, A. J., Lukasik, M. A., Belau, L., & Briggs, A. L. (2011). Getting specific about demographic diversity variable and team performance relationships: A meta-analysis. Journal of Management, 37(3), 709-743.

5 Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. I. (2009). Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 859-884. 

6 Davis, J. T., & Hines, M. (2020). How large are gender differences in toy preferences? A systematic review and meta-analysis of toy preference research. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(2), 373-394.

7 Nordenström, A., Servin, A., Bohlin, G., Larsson, A., & Wedell, A. (2002). Sex-typed toy play behavior correlates with the degree of prenatal androgen exposure assessed by CYP21 genotype in girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 87(11), 5119-5124.

8 Berenbaum, S. A., & Hines, M. (1992). Early androgens are related to childhood sex-typed toy preferences. Psychological Science, 3(3), 203-206.

9 Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 162-173.

10 Ones, D. S., Dilchert, S., Viswesvaran, C., & Judge, T. A. (2007). In support of personality assessment in organizational settings. Personnel Psychology, 60(4), 995-1027.