Wednesday, February 19, 2020
New Research Shows Bringing Up Past Injustices Against Women Alienates Men, Making Reform More Difficult
Ivona Hideg & Anne Wilson, Research: Bringing up Past Injustices Make Majority Groups Defensive, Harvard Bus. Rev.
Many organizations and institutions reference past injustices with the intention of making people more sensitive to how historic systems of oppression contribute to present-day inequalities. By drawing on social identity theory, however, we speculated that excessive focus on historical injustices can actually backfire by causing key groups to deny current discrimination and withdraw support for ongoing remediation programs.
Social identity theory posits that people derive some of their sense of identity and self-worth from their group memberships (including gender, race, religion, politics, or even sports teams), and are highly motivated to maintain and protect a positive image of their social groups. Just as an individual’s self-image can be shaken by reflecting on their own misdeeds, threats to social identity may arise when contemplating past misconduct by their group. This threat can lead to defensive behavior that diminishes or deflects perceived criticisms. As the historically-advantaged group, social identity theory predicts men will react defensively when presented with evidence of past injustices suffered by women, the disadvantaged group.
We tested these ideas through our recent research.***
These converging results suggest invoking past discrimination can threaten men’s social identity and undermine their perceptions of current levels of discrimination, consequently lowering their support for policies meant to ameliorate this situation.
What might be done to mitigate these negative effects? Must we sidestep these discussions of current groups’ shameful history, sacrificing its capacity to enrich our understanding for fear of triggering defensive backlash? Rather than simply avoiding discussions of the past, we reason that historically-advantaged groups (men, in these studies) might be more open to information about past injustices if there was a way to lessen the threat to their social identity.***
This work has important implications for policy-makers and organizations seeking to implement diversity and equity policies. Despite the intuitive appeal of using past injustices to bolster the case for such initiatives, this approach can undermine progress by threatening the social identity of key participants. As the efficacy of diversity and equity programs depends on establishing broad-based support, getting both men and women to view these policies positively should be considered an important pre-condition for success.