Equality from 9 to 5: Psychology Professor Looks at Discrimination and Diversity on the Job

Posted: April 28, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

student with/without hajib
Subtle discrimination can be triggered by one’s appearance, Mason psychology professor Eden King has found in her research.
Photo courtesy of Eden King

By Tara Laskowski

Thanks to legislation adopted in recent years, companies are sensitive and concerned about making sure discrimination does not occur in their workplace. We like to think the days of male supervisors chasing their female assistants around the desk, or someone getting harassed for their religious beliefs, are over. However, despite the laws put in place to protect people, discrimination does happen — oftentimes in more subtle ways.

Eden King
Eden King
Photo by Evan Cantwell

For Eden King, these subtle acts of discrimination are the kernels of her research. She wants to examine the nuances of these acts in the workplace and is hoping to find the answers to some very tough questions.

How do people of different cultures intermingle in the workplace and deal with misunderstandings and differences? Is patronizing behavior just as harmful as hostile behavior in the workplace? Do women and mothers get less respect and less challenging work then men and fathers?

“We may think that discrimination in the workplace is a thing of the past, but these kinds of issues are not going to go away,” says King, an assistant professor of psychology in the nationally ranked Industrial-Organizational Program at Mason. “Unfortunately, when people suppress their discrimination in one arena, it may emerge in another — subtle interpersonal cues such as avoidance of eye contact or lack of warmth. I’m very interested in this kind of interpersonal discrimination.”

Having been at Mason for just two years, King finds she often has more questions than she has time for. Her lab involves about 20 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students working on a wide variety of research projects.

Being Too Nice

One of King’s special interests is looking at benevolent sexism — a favorable view toward women (such as the belief that women are more nurturing than men) that is still grounded in gender stereotypes. King is using several studies to look at the ways benevolent sexism is used in the workplace, and to see if it is detrimental to women’s success.

“The question we also have to ask is: Does trying to protect women have negative consequences? And we’ve seen that it does. These reactions serve to maintain traditional gender roles, which can inhibit women’s success both in and outside of the workplace,” King says.

One recent study looked at the amount of “stretch tasks” — tasks that go beyond a person’s job duties in order to challenge and motivate them — that men get versus the amount women get in the workplace. Her study showed that while men and women get the same amount of stretch tasks, women’s tasks tended to be less challenging.

She believes this might be a case of benevolent sexism: Supervisors are trying to be nice and are giving women easier tasks to do.

“People might be trying to protect and be nice, but having these different standards may be harmful. It could be why women continue to get paid less in the workplace.”

The Diversity of Discrimination

One of the things King has discovered in her work is that discrimination goes way beyond female/male issues. She also has done studies on work-family issues, and has looked at the way that mothers and fathers are treated in the workplace. Another study, which landed her on “Good Morning America” as a graduate student at Rice University, looked at the discrimination obese people face when applying for jobs.

She has also explored the dual perspectives of coming out in the workplace and, along with senior student Afra Saeed, looked at the way Muslim women are treated in various interactions.

woman not pregnant/pregnant
King found that a woman who appeared to be pregnant was treated differently than a woman who was not.
Photo courtesy of Eden King

King’s most recent published study involves interpersonal reactions toward pregnant women. Working with Michelle Hebl of Rice University and other collaborators, King looked at the way pregnant women are treated when applying for jobs.

In the study, research assistants entered retail stores and followed a script in which they either applied for a job or browsed for a gift, sometimes wearing a prosthesis that made them appear pregnant. The research assistants, and a secret observer, rated salespersons’ hostile behaviors (e.g., rude, anxious, short) and patronizing behaviors (e.g., using diminutive names, overfriendliness, touching).

The study found that the women who asked about job opportunities when wearing the pregnancy prosthesis were faced with significantly more hostility than when the same women appeared as non-pregnant and inquired about jobs.

In contrast, the study also showed that pregnant women who stayed within more traditional bounds — shopping — experienced overtly patronizing behavior. Pregnant women who went into retail stores asking for help finding a gift more often found themselves victims of behavior such as overfriendliness, physical touching and being called “honey” or “sweetie.”

“This research highlights the challenges facing working mothers and suggests that current policies might not be as effective as hoped,” says King.

Training for Diversity

King believes that people’s behaviors and judgments are based on stereotypes that influence their reactions to members of a wide range of social groups.

She is interested in looking at diversity training in the workplace, and how this training can be more effective.

“In the long term, I hope that my research can influence the organizational decision makers in companies,” she says. “I want them to think about these things rather than assume things about people. Small steps can make a bigger difference in the long run to ensure that everyone gets treated as fairly as possible in the workplace.”

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