Diversity, Stereotypes, and Intersectionality: Margaret Shih

MShihWe know that gender and race stereotypes contribute to false assumptions and discrimination—but how do they shape the way that people see themselves, and the way that they perform in professional settings?

Professor Margaret Shih, of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management has found that stereotypes can diminish performance in some contexts, but enhance it in others. In noting these different responses, Professor Shih’s research reveals the complex ways in which racial and gender identities can intersect to shape experiences of stereotypes.

Professor Shih’s research explores the effects of diversity in organizations, with a focus on stereotypes and discrimination of racial minorities and women. Her pioneering work on Asian women has changed the way that researchers think about the impact of stereotypes. Namely, in contrast to most of the research on stereotype threat, which explores the way stereotypes impede performance, Professor Shih and colleagues discovered that individuals might experience a boost in their performance in response to some stereotypes.

Stereotype threat refers to the negative experience of worrying one will confirm a negative stereotype about one’s group. For example, when women have to take a math test and are asked to indicate their gender on the math test form prior to taking the test, this might trigger the stereotype that women are not good at math. During the test, the woman might become preoccupied with the possibility that she will do poorly on the test and that a poor score will confirm the negative stereotype about women and math performance. Ironically, because these worries take away cognitive resources that the woman could otherwise use to solve the math problems on the test, she might actually perform worse on the test than she might otherwise.

Professor Shih and colleagues expanded the work on stereotypes and performance in a fundamental way. Namely, they were interested in examining whether, in addition to hampering one’s performance (as is the case for women), stereotypes might also boost one’s performance. Because Asians are stereotyped as being good at math, Shih and colleagues examined how Asian women performed on a math test after either their gender (being a women) or their ethnic (being Asian) identity was made salient. They found that Asian women performed better on a math test when their ethnic identity was activated, but worse when their gender identity was activated, compared with a control group who had neither identity activated. This work was the first to show performance boosts as a consequence of stereotype activations, and speaks to the importance of studying the intersectionality of gender and race—that is to say, the ways in which both race and gender will shape an individual’s experiences.

In another line of research, conducted in collaboration with Peter Norlander (Loyola University) and Serena Does (Postdoctoral Scholar, UCLA Anderson School of Management), Professor Shih is identifying studies disparities in racial minorities’ and women’s exposure to positive experiences in the workplace compared to white workers and men. The main focus of prior research on gender and racial disparities in organizational settings has focused on disparities between these groups in terms of negative experiences (e.g., micro-aggressions, racist and sexist comments). Notwithstanding the importance of such work, Professor Shih and colleagues argue that racial minorities and women are also more likely to face barriers in terms of positive experiences (e.g., mentoring, social support, recognition) at work. Having fewer positive experiences at work than their colleagues who are white or are men, may explain why racial minorities and women leave their jobs at such high rates. In addition to having more reasons to leave (e.g., being discriminated against) racial minorities and women may also have fewer reasons to stay (e.g., less social support) in the workplace.

Finally, in collaboration Nicholas Alt (UCLA Psychology) and Serena Does, Professor Shih is exploring how priming people to consider gender and race influences the inclusion of racial minorities and women. In an experimental setting, participants are assigned to three different groups. The first group of people are asked to select five faces from a large database of faces consisting of an equal number of men and women, and a number of whites and racial minorities. The second group is asked to select five faces, while being mindful of gender. The third group is asked to select five faces, while being mindful of race. The experiment revealed that when participants are asked to select faces while being mindful of gender, they selected more racial minorities than when they were just asked to select five faces. This research shows how the categories of race and gender are linked in people’s minds and demonstrates the importance of studying how priming these categories can impact on individuals’ decisions regarding inclusion of women and racial minorities.

Margaret Shih is the Board of Visitors Term Chair Professor in Management and Organizations and Senior Associate Dean of the Fully Employed MBA and Full Time MBA programs at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Prior to joining the faculty UCLA, Professor Shih was a faculty member at the University of Michigan. She serves on the executive committee for the International Society for Self and Identity and is a consulting editor for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. She has received fellowships and grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, Social Sciences and Humanities of Research Council of Canada, John Templeton Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Special thanks to Serena Does, Ph.D. for assistance with this profile. Does is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Social and Identity Lab at UCLA Anderson School of Management.