Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have now drawn no less than three viral flare-ups of outrage in the past two months among critics — each for the lack of women either among their ranks or at their decision-making tables. First there was the widely shared photo of the House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus, meeting to discuss an earlier version of the Republicans’ health-care bill, that showed only men. Then there were the photos of President Trump and House Republicans celebrating last week’s passage of their health care measure in the Rose Garden at the White House, which also showed a group of largely white men.
Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, has studied how small group discussions benefit from what she calls “surface-level diversity” — the visible differences between team members — in coming up with broader and more innovative ideas.
“It’s almost like a trigger in the room, this salient identity,” she says. Having visibly different people together, such as women, means the senators might think ” ‘Well, huh, what would my daughter think about this? Or my mother?’ even if that person doesn’t have a different opinion.”
She found that the groups with racial diversity did significantly better than the all-white groups. “Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective,” Phillips wrote in a Scientific American article in 2014. “This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.”
Similar research by others has found that when a black person presents a dissenting idea to a group of white people, the white recipients of the information saw it as a more innovative idea that prompted them to consider more alternatives than when a white person said the same thing. The visible differences between the people in the group provoked them to think differently, Phillips said, shaking up their thinking.
Phillips’s research has focused on race, but she believes the concept would also apply to gender, even if our ingrained expectations for how men and women should act in group settings might end up influence the results. “Assuming you have women in the room and they are senators, too, then absolutely, having them in the room could have an impact,” she said. “My research would suggest even if [the female senator] doesn’t say something different, that it would trigger the men in the room to consider that there may be alternative viewpoints to the issue they’re addressing.”
GOP aides argue that having people with different views on the conservative spectrum is diversity, but Phillips warns it’s harder for it to have the same impact. “One of the things about ‘diversity of thought’ is it has to be expressed convincingly — it has to be heard. You cannot be guaranteed that it’s going to be salient to people,” she said. “Whereas racial diversity and gender diversity is vivid. You can see it. Being on the surface allows it to have an impact on people psychologically. It causes more cognitive diversity and deeper processing of information by the people who are in the room.” It can even make the back-and-forth between the men better, too, she says: “It can free up the men to dissent with each other and have real debate about what’s going on.”
(Excerpted from Washington Post 5/9/17)