Toward a contextual understanding of critical mass
This research, in the context of diversity within educational institutions, suggested that it is not necessarily a simple number or ‘amount of diversity’ that is required, rather that several other factors also contribute to unlocking the concept of diversity ‘critical mass’. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.
Many organisations are faced with the problem of identifying ‘how much’ diversity is required within the organisational environment to allow the value of diversity to be realised. To date, many organisations have introduced ‘quotas’ as a first attempt to quantify this concept.
This American paper by Professor Lilana M. Garces ( Penn State, College of Education) and Professor Uma M. Jayakumar ( University of San Francisco) attempted to answer the question of ‘how much diversity is required to attain the desired benefit’. That is, how much diversity is needed to unlock the benefits of, in this case, education for students in the context of universities? This challenge is equal to that faced by many organisations. Understanding at what point diversity moves from tokenism through to a ‘value add’ for the organisation is complex and this paper, while not answering the problem, provided solid ground work by attempting to solve this complex challenge.
An alternate term for ‘critical mass’ in the paper was suggested to be ‘dynamic diversity’. Dynamic diversity was suggested to be important in order to show that the organisation or institution:
a. Values diversity
b. Welcomes diversity
c. Is not merely being tokenistic
d. Wishes to achieve positive experiences through its diversity
e. Wishes to sustain participation and engagement through its diversity.
The aim of the paper was to explore how much diversity satisfies legislative requirements of universities in America to achieve a ‘critical mass of diversity’.
The research looked to social science and previous academic literature to attempt to define this concept. Primarily, the paper looked to previous court rulings to find a satisfactory definition. Secondly, the paper explored previous research on the topic that firstly defined the concept, as well as looking at other factors that contribute to the achievement of ‘critical mass’.
In reviewing previous academic literature, the authors suggested that simply quantifying diversity does not solve the problem at hand. The paper suggested that several other factors influenced ‘dynamic diversity’ – that is, it is not simply a matter of how much diversity you have, rather the context in which is exists. These four factors included:
- The culture or climate
- Institutional signals and commitment to diversity
- Reducing stigma
- Interactions between diverse groups.
1. The culture or climate
The authors drew on various social science experiments to find that a positive climate, in this case positive racial climate, created an environment of dynamic diversity. The paper suggested that this means that it is not only a matter of numbers, but dynamic diversity also requires a climate that positively supports integration. One of the studies cited by the author found that a negative racial climate was related to a lower sense of belonging for diverse students.
2. Institutional signals and commitment to diversity
The paper suggested that in order to realise the benefits of diversity, historical exclusionary events must be acknowledged. The examples of exclusionary behaviour given by the authors included a history of segregation or patterns related to admissions. The paper also referred to the policies and procedures that signal a commitment to diversity and found that signalling a commitment to diversity could encourage higher levels of applications by diverse groups, in this case, racially diverse groups. Interestingly, the paper found that the removal of affirmative action policies was seen to discourage applications by racially diverse students.
3. Reducing stigma
The authors mentioned previous research that highlighted the negative impact of stereotype threat. This was in reference to how different groups interacted with each other and had an adverse impact on the performance and participation of diverse groups. The research suggested that where diversity numbers were low, members of these minorities demonstrated dis-identification, decreased desire to participate and a reduced sense of belonging. The final comment on this made by the authors was that such an environment leads to reduced levels of meaningful discussions in classrooms and this leads to a decrease in the voicing of diverse perspectives.
4. Interactions between diverse groups
The final environmental factor discussed in the paper was the types of interactions occurring between diverse groups. The paper mentioned previous research that found interactions between diverse groups contributed to learning and challenged existing stereotypes. The paper cited a previous study of over 1,450 students that found cross racial interactions resulted in higher group understanding, positive emotions and higher levels of collaboration.
While the paper did not find a definite ‘number’ to answer the question ‘what is critical mass in relation to diversity’, it did begin the discussion. The business world can take several lessons from this early research which suggests that simply putting in place quotas will not result in the desired benefit associated with diversity. Leaders should consider the environment in which diversity exists, and reflect on such things as their organisational culture, practices, policies and their commitment to diversity in order to begin to see the real value in having dynamic diversity within their organisations. Purposefully creating moments were diverse groups can interact and share diverse perspectives, is also critical in achieving dynamic diversity.
To read the full article, see Garces, L.M. and Jayakumar, U.M. (2014) “Dynamic diversity: toward a contextual understanding of critical mass’. Educational Researcher. vol. 43 no. 3 pp. 115-124.