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Tackling In-Group Bias

Employers think of diversity training as something focused on understanding other groups, but new academic research finds more understanding may be needed between members of the same group, as well.

Thursday, February 28, 2013
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At the mention of racial bias, you typically think of discrimination involving two different groups. But a recent study suggests you might want to broaden your definition.

Researchers at the University of Virginia surveyed more than 200 black students at UVA and Piedmont Virginia Community College and found that more than 65 percent experienced some form of in-group discrimination.

While the research was limited to black college students, one of the study's authors suggests the findings might shed some light on in-group dynamics in the workplace as well.

Often, employers think of diversity training as something focused on understanding other groups, says Joanna Williams, assistant professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, co-author of the study. "But this study confirms that conflict can happen within a particular group, too."

Williams' and doctoral student Myles Durkee's research -- which is currently under review for publication -- found that in-group discrimination among blacks frequently involved attacking a person's "authenticity."

"Students were told that they weren't acting black enough," Williams says. "Some were explicitly told they were acting white."

Williams notes that the research also found patterns of language use, lightness of skin color or attire were often singled out.

Women, in particular, were on the receiving end of such comments, she says.

To arrive at their findings, Williams and Durkee asked those surveyed to indicate whether they had ever experienced negative treatment from someone in their own racial or ethnic group, and how old they were the first and last time they encountered it. Participants were also asked to describe an event involving in-group discrimination and its timing.

Far too often, Williams says, educators don't recognize such in-group dynamics. "But they should," she says.

In light of these findings, Williams suggests that employers might want to revisit their diversity training initiatives.

 "Oftentimes, we think of diversity training as focused on understanding other groups, but I think some recognition that conflict can also happen within groups is important and necessary [and should be incorporated into your training initiatives]," she says.

Williams admits that in-group bias can be a sensitive issue to discuss, but believes organizations shouldn't use that as an excuse to ignore it.

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Mark Kaplan, a workplace diversity expert and principal at The Dagoba Group in Salisbury, N.H., notes that the issue of in-group bias is something he's encountered in his travels.

"Whether you're a woman, a person of color or openly gay, when you're put in a position of leadership, it's possible that you can be tougher on members of your own group … because you don't want to be seen as being biased to your own group," says Kaplan, who is co-author of a forthcoming book, The Inclusion Divide: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off.

"The stereotype is that if a woman is put in charge of a group, she's going to give the advantage to other women," he says. "But I think that the opposite actually happens, because she doesn't want to seem to give [other women] the advantage."

To address this issue, Kaplan says, employers need to do a better job holding their leaders accountable for their actions.

Further, he says, talent management and acquisition processes need to have controls in them that prevent bias from happening in the first place.

But he also adds a word for caution for employers: Don't fall into the trap of focusing too much on intragroup dynamics and take your focus away from the larger systemic issues facing your business.

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