Backlash and false progress: Exploring diversity management in the engineering industry

Zara Whysall, Elizabeth Foley


Recent typological theory highlights potential unintended consequences of diversity initiatives, including backlash and false progress.  This study aimed to explore the impact of diversity initiatives on two dimensions: horizontal dimensionality in terms of majority and minority groups, and vertical dimensionality in terms of both surface and deeper levels of organisational culture.  A mixed-methods design was adopted, comprising a survey of male and female engineers to allow for comparisons between majority and minority groups attitudes, and interviews with internal stakeholders within a global engineering organisation attempting to enhance gender diversity, to explore alignment between diversity initiatives and underlying attitudes, beliefs, and values. The findings revealed that superficial efforts to promote diversity can potentially threaten the perceived legitimacy of such initiatives, creating perceptions of positive discrimination and tokenism.  The findings also highlight the importance of alignment between what an organisation espouses (both internally and externally), and how its members truly think and act.  These findings support recent theoretical propositions regarding potential unintended consequences of diversity initiatives.  We propose that to mitigate unintended effects, diversity initiatives must embrace greater horizontal dimensionality through inclusion of majority and minority groups, and vertical dimensionality through achieving change at both surface and deeper levels of organisational culture. 


Diversity; Gender; Engineering; Culture

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