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Employee Demographics Don’t Have to Be at Odds with Employees’ Identities

Beth K. Humberd, Judy Clair, and Elizabeth (Bess) Rouse


Over the past decade, more people have begun to openly acknowledge that their identities don’t fit in with existing conceptions of gender, race, and ethnicity. The way we see ourselves has evolved to better reflect the nuances and complexities of being human. “He” and “she” are no longer the only acceptable pronouns. It is becoming more widely understood that racial and ethnic identities can change across time and place.

In many areas of the world, the culture has begun to recognize these changes due to a number of societal trends: rising rates of immigration; marriage between racially and ethnically diverse individuals; a growing push for self-fashioned identities in Western culture; and access to media platforms that allow people to connect with others who share their unique backgrounds and needs.

Yet, most businesses remain behind these societal changes. Organizational categorization systems — institutionalized approaches used to sort and organize people into demographic groups — have tended to reflect longstanding cultural norms that treat the world as a simple, binary place.

Are there consequences to this?

In our recent research, we aimed to answer this question. We collected and analyzed more than 300 scholarly articles published in top management journals to better understand current assumptions about gender, race, and ethnicity at work. The articles were focused specifically on diversity in organizations and were published during a 20-year period, from 1996 to 2015.

We found that an overwhelming majority of this work (approx. 95% of the articles reviewed) categorize race, gender, and ethnicity in traditional, normative ways. Such categorizations are largely driven by what’s been done in the past, and in some cases, by governmental regulations that require businesses to classify employees under certain (often binary) terms.

To understand how these categorizations “bump up against” the changing culture, we then examined real-world examples of individuals who claim nontraditional gender, racial, and ethnic identities, pulled from a variety of outlets, including popular press articles, blogs, and nonprofit organizations.

We found that employees who identify in ways that do not conform to the norms used to define and categorize them at work are more likely to feel marginalized, and even threatened. When organizational policies and practices are inconsistent with a person’s demographic identity, their identity autonomy (the feeling that one has freedom and personal control over one’s identity) and their identity legitimacy (the feeling one’s identity is seen and experienced as valid, real, and justifiable) become constrained. As a result, their motivation, engagement, performance, and overall satisfaction at work can suffer. Further, to younger generations of workers, who are more likely to view self-fashioned identities as the “norm,” a traditional organizational approach can make a company appear out of touch.

In short, the way most companies treat identity is increasingly misaligned with the complex ways employees — as well as customers, clients, and other stakeholders — see themselves. The first step towards making a change is recognizing the assumptions that are driving these misalignments. Four common ones appeared time and again in our research:

Assumption #1: Identities can be easily or naturally divided into singular categories based on simple binary choices. For example, it is commonly assumed that an individual is either a man or a woman, but not both or neither, or that someone’s race can be categorized as simply “white” or “non-white.” When we make this assumption, we misconstrue, mis-categorize, and ignore that some people’s identities are best represented by multiplicity.

Assumption #2: Once an individual places themselves in a demographic group (e.g., “I am Latino.” “I am black.” “I am male.”) that identity is unlikely to change. Today, it is much more common for people to claim fluid identities that vary depending on the situation, time, or period in their lives. (e.g., “Sometimes I identify with my Latino heritage, and sometimes I identify more with being black.” Or “My biological sex assigned at birth was male, but I actually identify as gender fluid.”) In terms of race and ethnicity, a Pew Research Center reporton multiracial identity in the U.S. shows that many mixed-race adults have changed how they view their race over the course of their lifetimes. Still, about one in five multiracial adults report that they have been pressured by others, or society in general, to identify as a single race.

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    Company Culture

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