“How is inequality perpetuated in the workplace?” 4 questions with an LGBTQI researcher

A professor of LGBTQI workplace inclusion talks about how bias is perpetuated and what we can do about it

Inclusion and Diversity tree card
To illustrate diversity, we can use the metaphor of looking up into a tree from the ground. The portion that is visible represents differences that are physically apparent. All parts of tree, whether visible or not, are important. Like a tree trunk, inclusion provides the framework for diversity to thrive. (Source: Elsevier’s Inclusion & Diversity employee newsletter)

How does inclusion contribute to happiness at work? What can we do, as an individual, right now, to make this happen?

The demographics of the workplace are changing, but more diversity doesn’t always equate to more inclusion. Employers have a responsibility not just to contend with the usual business at work but also to understand the needs and expectations of employees as individuals, ensuring psychological safety. This, in turn, leads to productivity.

Happy employees are more productive, but what is the science behind this premise? What does an inclusive work floor look like? I spoke to Prof. Jojanneke van der Toorn, a social and organizational psychologist, who works on the topic of inclusion and diversity specifically in the context of LGBTQI, in a joint post at Leiden University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Here is a summary of the interview. You can listen to the full interview on my blog.

1. What exactly do inclusion and diversity mean?

Prof. Jojanneke van der Toorn, PhDDiversity is used to describe the different backgrounds that people come from, their distinct competencies and collective experiences that have made them the person they are. Diversity recognizes that while we have many things in common, we also have differences. Inclusion is an external cultural element, whether people can feel that they belong to a group and can be their authentic selves in it.

Inclusion strives to value differences between employees, to ensure all policies are equal for everyone, and that people have an opportunity to contribute to decision making. A culture of inclusion is the key to harvesting  the benefits of diversity; diverse teams perform better in an inclusive organizational climate and employees. Interestingly, it is not necessarily true that if a workplace has integrated diversity, inclusion will follow automatically – in fact, inclusion is something that needs to be worked on actively to ensure that the diversity is an asset.

2. How are bias and inequality perpetuated?

People are motivated to feel good about themselves and the groups in which they belong, but they also want to feel good about the larger system these groups operate in. To feel that society is fair and just, for example. However, if the group that one identifies with is inherently disadvantaged, then these various motivations are not aligned as a discordance exists between trying to feel good about one’s group and the system that suppresses it. One may then start to rationalize biases and inequalities in society to continue feeling good about it. Collectively, this perpetuates bias and contributes to the maintenance of inequality and stereotypical perceptions.

3. How can we change this cycle of bias?

The good news is that the psychological mechanisms that maintain the status quo can be challenged to make the playing field more level for everyone. People who stand up and challenge the status quo can belong to both minority and majority groups. Proactive volunteers from majority groups that support and speak up for minority groups are called allies. Allies not only challenge the status quo but also strive to educate majority groups about the biases and stereotypes that exist. It is important to note that having a positive/neutral attitude towards minority groups is not enough to cause change, as this passivity still endorses the biases that exist in the system. Being an ally means being proactive.

4. What is the biggest challenge in this field?

Many people belonging to the cis heterosexual majority group do not understand the need for the push for inclusion and diversity. On an abstract level, we all agree that equality in the workplace is necessary, but many do not grasp the additional hurdles minority groups face in the workplace and in general that leave them disadvantaged.

Also, often diversity is thought of as what is relatively visible, like ethnicity, binary gender, etc. It is important that we also consider the invisible differences between employees, including but not limited to sexual orientation and gender identity. With regard to sexual orientation, most think of this as concerning personal sexual preferences and therefore deem it irrelevant in the workplace. However, one must remember that the heterosexual cisgender identity is generally the assumed identity, which can be, at best, intimidating to someone different. And not being able to talk about your relationships and your life at work can stand in the way of establishing work relationships that should be based on honesty and trust. The further creation of an inclusive culture is achieved when people of different backgrounds, orientations and ideas can share their perspective, creating synergy in their differences, and apply that to the task at hand. And this needs a proactive attitude from all employers and employees.

Prof. van der Toorn’s projects

Bias and inequality in STEM

One of Jojanneke’s current projects is to investigate inequality in STEM and the extent to which STEM fields’ culture that values masculinity can explain why gay men have been found to be more likely to drop out of these careers than lesbians.

Jojanneke is also looking into the possible biases that are faced by gender nonconforming people in employment contexts, and on the work-related implications of feeling invisibly different from most others at work. Feeling invisibly different to others has been shown to be related to a lowered sense of inclusion, unless the place of work has a culture of inclusion.

Requirement for privacy vs the need for inclusion

Another project she is working on is the possible discordance between the requirement for privacy and the need for inclusion in companies. Specifically, to identify and combat possible inequalities based on group membership, data is needed on the sexual and gender identities of employees in order to be linked to their salaries, promotion opportunities, and the sense of inclusion in the organization . However, gathering such personal data can be shaky ground as this could infringe on individual privacy.

To get more answers, Jojanneke is working closely with workplace LGBTQI networks. Her approach will be multidisciplinary, involving scientists researching law, social sciences and humanities. This was the subject of a workshop held recently at Elsevier’s headquarters in Amsterdam, in collaboration with Workplace Pride, a platform for LGBTQI workplace inclusion. The intention is to make a toolbox for evidence-based diversity policy using the insights from science.



Written by

Sheba Agarwal-Jans, PhD

Written by

Sheba Agarwal-Jans, PhD

Dr. Sheba Agarwal-Jans is a Scientific Editor at iScience, published by Elsevier's Cell Press. Previously, she was a Publisher at Elsevier, managing the Microbiology and Mycology portfolio of journals in the Life Sciences department. Sheba is also the founder of the science communications blog We Talk Science, which brings evidence-based science to the general public.

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