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Promises and Pitfalls of Diversity Statements

Proceed With Caution

Carnes, Molly, MD, MS; Fine, Eve, PhD; Sheridan, Jennifer, PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002388
Perspectives
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As part of their efforts to increase the diversity of their workforce and student body, medical schools, academic medical centers, and individual departments are increasingly crafting public statements about their value for and commitment to diversity. For these statements to effectively enhance diversity, however, care must be taken, as research shows that some diversity-related messages can backfire. To avoid the pitfalls and realize the promise of diversity statements, this article presents recommendations based on experimental studies that investigate the impact of diversity messages. These studies suggest that diversity statements be aspirational, emphasize autonomy, and express a value for difference. Aspirational statements avoid creating the impression that equity has been achieved, thus preventing the “illusion of fairness” and the “paradox of meritocracy,” wherein espousing egalitarian values and the existence of a meritocracy can increase biased outcomes and workplace disparities. Statements that emphasize autonomy avoid the backlash that can occur when organizational members feel coerced into adopting prodiversity actions. Statements that emphasize the value of human differences convey a multicultural message that has shown positive outcomes compared with “colorblind” statements that acknowledge our common humanity. Although there are no studies specific to academic medicine, current research on a variety of organizations, including some studies from the health care industry, suggests that relying on these recommendations to craft a diversity statement may help contribute to academic medical centers’ larger efforts to promote diversity and inclusion and may help them avoid some deleterious effects.

M. Carnes is professor, Departments of Medicine, Psychiatry, and Industrial & Systems Engineering, and director, Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

E. Fine is director of curriculum design and implementation, Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

J. Sheridan is executive and research director, Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

Funding/Support: This work was funded with support from the National Institutes of Health, no. R35 GM122557, and from the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: Reported as not applicable.

Correspondence should be addressed to Molly Carnes, Center for Women’s Health Research, 700 Regent St., Suite 301, Madison, WI 53715; telephone: (608) 263-9770; e-mail: mlcarnes@wisc.edu.

© 2019 by the Association of American Medical Colleges