What can you do to support workplace diversity? Highlight the role of hard work for success rather than innate talent

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[Zombie ideas in understanding gender, vol. 3]

One of the most persistent and deep-rooted of all beliefs about human nature is that natural talent (i.e. an innate ability to excel at a specific activity) plays a major role in deciding who will be among the most excellent. No one has ever found a gene variant that predicts peak performance in any given field and no one has ever come up with a way to identify future stars early in their careers. Not according to the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. His research of expert performance in domains such as medicine, music, chess, and sports points to quite a different explanation of why some people excel, and others do not with deliberate practice (e.g. a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic) playing the leading role. As we can see from this quote, his rebuttal of natural talent has a democratizing intent, hoping to prevent those identified as not having the “right” genes from being marginalized or excluded:

It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don’t and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the “talented” ones and disencourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy. It is human nature to want to put effort – time, money, teaching, encouragement, support – where it will do the most good and also to try to protect kids from disappointment. There is usually nothing nefarious going on here, but the results can be incredibly damaging. The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us – and work to find ways to develop it. (Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, 2016, Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things, 241-242)

There is also gender aspects in this prevailing myth that genetics strongly limit abilities. One study has found that the belief in natural talent, coupled with the societal tendency to associate brilliance with men and not women, can tip the gender balance in academic fields. The study shows a correlation between the belief that an academic discipline requires innate talent and the scarce numbers of women in that discipline. The culture of the field undermines representation because of stereotypes about intellectual ability, although there has never been proven any real intellectual difference between genders (Leslie et al. 2015). It is one of the persistent beliefs around gender, a zombie idea, which also explains why some ethnic minorities are under-represented in a similar way. According to the research, emphasizing that genius and natural talent are required to succeed can stop women and minority groups from pursuing careers in certain fields. Thus, recommendations for anyone wanting to increase the diversity in the workplace is to

  • Highlight the role of hard work for success rather than innate talent. It is unrealistic to expect peak performance from all employees in all types of works. Nevertheless, to give the right conditions for deliberate practice, such as time, money, mentoring etc. will give more leeway for developing the full potential and abilities of women (and men) at work.
  • Pointing out equal abilities might also help shatter the gender stereotypes. There is no better way to do that than to make counter-stereotypical female role models

Nina Almgren 

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