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How promoting women can boost other disadvantaged groups, too

Research suggests the advancement of women at the office doesn’t negatively affect hard-working members of traditionally advantaged groups.

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The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 bestseller, Lean In, helped to fuel new Ivey Business School research that underscores the value of actively supporting diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace.

"She made it okay to ask questions about why it is taking so long to attain gender diversity in leadership among our top corporations. She also made it not okay for business to do nothing," says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the London, Ont., school.

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Dr. Konrad's research paper on the topic, Outcomes of Diversity and Equality Management Systems, is published in Human Resources Management and was co-authored by Ivey assistant professor Cara Maurer and Yang Yang, an assistant professor of management at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

In an e-mail, Dr. Konrad says the resulting push by many large businesses to move more women into leadership positions has had a broader-than-anticipated effect on office diversity, also helping people with disabilities, different religious groups, younger workers and visible minorities.

"When businesses work on welcoming more women into leadership, they develop systems and processes that are also beneficial for other historically marginalized groups," she says.

Dr. Konrad's latest research tested a theory that suggests there are synergies among individual organizational practices. An aggressive search for a high-quality diverse candidate, for example, would not be enough to bring diversity to senior leadership. The practice must also be supported by various practices – from inclusive interviewing techniques to work-life flexibility practices and policies that support professional growth and promotion within a firm.

The researchers found that the more thoroughly integrated such practices are, the more diversity will show up in employment statistics (and, ultimately, translate to a more positive bottom line).

Dr. Konrad says she was most surprised to see the theory support workers with disabilities, who "have been treated as sort of a separate category of people requiring disability-focused accommodations for success."

Though the research did not include anything about accommodations, the findings still show strong support for the idea that systems initially designed for a certain identity group can deliver benefits that enhance diversity and inclusion quite widely, she notes.

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Ultimately, says Dr. Konrad, she's looking to change thinking about diversity and inclusion "from a win-lose dichotomy to a yin/yang connectedness."

That is, "People sometimes fear that if we welcome historically excluded groups, hard-working members of historically included groups will suffer."

The research says that's not so.

The findings show that rich diversity and inclusion programs result in a positive impact on financial performance and that benefits everyone. "When the company is doing well, there are more rewards across the board," Dr. Konrad says.

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