It’s no secret that marginalised groups face barriers in educational settings that the able-bodied, male, and racially privileged largely do not. Issues pertaining to access, sense of belonging, potential discrimination, and financial difficulties can add often insurmountable layers of complexity to applying for further education.
Efforts to address this in recent years have crystallised into a number of measures, including the wide adoption of diversity and inclusion grants. These provide financial support specifically for selected individuals from marginalised groups, in order to give them a more equal footing with applicants from privileged backgrounds.
However, recent research from Adriana L. Germano and colleagues at The University of Washington has illustrated some unintended flaws with this approach. In stark contrast with the ethos behind diversity and inclusion initiatives, these grants may be serving to make applications to prestigious scholarships even less diverse than before.
The paper, published in Psychological Science, builds this argument from four separate studies. In the first, participants (N=168) from racial groups underrepresented in US colleges were asked to choose between two hypothetical grants they could apply for: one of $5000, or one of $2500. In one condition, participants read that the smaller amount was available to anyone, and in the other, they learned that it was a diversity award, specifically for underrepresented ethnic or racial minorities. The reasoning behind the participants’ grant selection was then probed by questions that assessed factors such as how likely they felt they would be to get the grant, or how much they felt the scholarship was for people like them.
The team found that when neither grant was labelled as a diversity award, 87% of applicants would shoot for the $5000 award. However, when the smaller grant was labelled as a diversity award, this number dropped sharply, with only 55.3% participants choosing to apply for the larger, unrestricted grant. Analysis of the responses revealed that this was in large part because participants felt that they fit better into the intended group of the diversity award. Not only that, but the large majority were more confident they’d receive this award than the more valuable, unrestricted award.
The researchers then investigated whether these findings were generalisable to other minority groups. This time, they looked at women applicants’ choice of grant. The method was identical to that of study one, except that the diversity award’s description now specified it was for women applicants only. New follow-up questions probed participants’ feelings of how biased those awarding the grants may be, and what they may write in an application essay.
Again, participants tended to choose the larger award when neither was billed as a diversity award (73%). But, when the smaller grant was labelled as a diversity award for women applicants, it once again attracted the majority of applications (61.9%). And, as in the first study, this group appeared to be going for the diversity award because they felt that they fit better within the intended pool of applicants, rather than for any other reason (such as beliefs about the fairness of the evaluators).
In the final study, the team took a closer look at the real-world behavioural consequences of these findings. Female participants (N=152) were given the opportunity to write 500-word essays for the chance to win either one or two grants, valued at $30 and $20. In one condition, these were both unrestricted, and in another, the smaller grant was labelled as a diversity grant. Participants were asked which of the essays they would like to work on first, and after completing the first essay, were given the option to continue, or to leave the study having applied for just their first choice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the effort of essay writing, 31% of participants chose to leave after applying for just one of the grants. When both grants were unrestricted, 87.7% prioritised the larger grant. However, in line with the previous findings, only 50% of participants prioritised the larger award when a diversity award was also presented. Of those that chose to complete both application essays, 90.9% prioritised the larger amount when no diversity option was offered, versus a miniscule 39.1% when one was present.
These findings suggest a stark dilemma. In providing explicit diversity opportunities, organisations may inadvertently be siphoning diverse talent away from more lucrative awards and opportunities. This could leave those from privileged backgrounds more likely to receive larger significant grants, which may even have an exponential effect, as additional benefits are often more readily afforded to those in receipt of prestigious awards.
Furthermore, though this study didn’t explicitly test this phenomenon within a disabled population, the final study hints at the potential problems this effect may pose for this group. The physical effort of applying for awards, compounded by this prioritisation of lower value diversity awards, may place such candidates in an especially inequitable position. This may be a fruitful and informative avenue for further research, and could lead to the development of more robust equity measures.
This study highlights the need for thorough consideration and assessment of the application of diversity initiatives. There are clearly other factors to consider too; for example, it may be the case that diversity grants encourage a larger number of diverse candidates to apply for awards in the first place. However, these findings strongly underline the necessity for proper analysis and monitoring of grant applications to ensure the intended effect is achieved.
Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest