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A mathematical model for a more diverse workforce

Many organisations have a biased workforce, even though diversity has so many advantages. Australian and Dutch researchers, including Leiden psychologist Romy van der Lee, have developed a solution based on a mathematical model. They published their findings in PLoS One on 28 July.

Range of mechanisms

© Gianfranco Uber
© Gianfranco Uber

A mixed workforce generates more talent and creativity, and greater capacity to resolve problems. Yet many organisations find it difficult to improve the diversity of their workforce. Instead, one particular gender or ethnic group tends to dominate. There are a number of mechanisms underlying this, according to lead author Kate O’Brien from the University of Queensland, Australia. ‘It has to do with social stereotypes, unconscious prejudices, responsibilities towards family, the culture within a company and lack of relevant education for marginalised groups. All these issues can exacerbate one another, which makes it very difficult to determine precisely which factors are impeding change, and then setting about dealing with them.’

Three primary factors

O’Brien, whose background is in modelling complex systems, takes a pragmatic approach. ‘Ultimately, the composition of the workforce depends on the speed with which people are appointed and leave the organisation, the diversity of the applicants and any bias in how staff are recruited and how they are let go.’ The simple ‘employer budget approach’ developed by the authors focuses on the first three of these factors. In their study they show how these indicators can be used to unravel these bottlenecks and in so doing to resolve them.

Identifying obstacles and opportunities

So how can employers actually avoid falling into the trap of workforce bias? The researchers developed a framework to set out the obstacles and opportunities. Identifying the bias - the often unconscious prejudice - is the key factor. The model demonstrates how an organisation can become mired in a homogeneous workforce if there is any kind of bias in how they recruit staff and let them go.

Starting points

Romy van der Lee
Romy van der Lee

Leiden psychologist Romy van der Lee, one of the co-authors, explains: ‘If applicants from under-represented groups have a lower chance of being appointed and if they subsequently are the ones who more often leave the organisation, for example because they find the working atmosphere more negative than staff from the dominant group, the diversity of the workforce will not improve, despite any efforts made. Our model can give an insight into the extent of the appointment and dismissal bias, and so offers a starting point to promote diversity within the workforce.’


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