Does age diversity training really make a difference?

“How can I reduce age bias in my workplace without pulling everyone into a mandatory diversity workshop?”

We know that negative age stereotypes can have a debilitating effect on communication and team relationships (Posthuma and Campion, 2009; Wegge et al., 2012).

But there is surprisingly little empirical knowledge about the effectiveness of age diversity training in the workplace. This is particularly concerning given research has shown that age stereotypes can be harder to tackle through diversity interventions than other dimensions such as gender or race (Beelmann, Heinemann and Saur, 2009,, Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006).

This is partly what led scholars from German and Norwegian universities to conduct two experiments to understand what methods of diversity intervention actually lead to a reduction in age bias (Schloegel et al., 2016).

Their study centred on the tech industry (and in particular software development teams) where a bias towards youth is rife. Clearly however, the implications of their work are relevant to any team that heavily relies on high levels of collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing.

Acknowledging the tech industry’s unique challenges around age stereotyping, PhD student Uta Schloegal, Dr. Sebastian Stegmann, along with Prof. Dr. Alexander Maedche and Prof. Rolf van Dick note there is a perception that “IT-associated jobs [are] less suited for older than for younger employees” due to the rapid and ongoing change within that industry.

Ultimately, their research concluded that while diversity workshops that focus on awareness can reduce age bias, workshops based on contact and collaboration between inter-generational groups were more effective in reducing age bias over a longer period of time for both younger and older groups.

Aim: The purpose of their paper, “Reducing age stereotypes in software development: The effects of awareness- and cooperation-based diversity interventions” was to understand how diversity practitioners in a professional environment could reduce age biases that impact performance and innovation expectations between “younger and middle-age” developers, and  “middle aged and older” developers.

Their studies sought to test the following hypotheses:

  1. That providing older employees the opportunity to deliver innovative presentations about their field (software development) would reduce the gap in performance and innovation expectations when comparing middle-aged to older employees.
  2. That an interaction of job role, time and intervention on bias would also reduce age bias.
  3. That intergenerational team cooperation and collaboration would significantly reduce bias in performance and innovation expectations comparing middle-aged to older and younger employees, both on a short- and long-term basis.

Method: Schloegal et al ran a “quasi-experiment” with 56 participants in an awareness workshop, to test hypothesis one and two.

Employees from a software department based in China were invited to attend a one-day workshop, where older staff members would present on software product advances and innovation. They weren’t told it was an age diversity workshop – it was pitched as an all-day series of presentations about software innovation.

Prior to and following the workshop, participants completed a survey on performance and innovation expectations, prompted to agree or disagree with statements such as “Middle-aged employees (i.e., 36-50 years old) work well on tasks with new technologies.” All members of the department attended voluntarily, with two staff members being the exception.

To test hypothesis three, a separate cooperation-based workshop was run with a company based in Europe that already engages in diversity management. The workshop was based on the contact hypothesis, a well-established theory in social psychology that stereotypes and prejudice can be reduced through face to face contact.

Run over two days, the cooperation workshop aimed to encourage inter-generational collaboration through group discussions, presentations, tasks and activities that covered both work-related and non-work related topics. Attendance was optional.

Findings: Workshop results indicated that both awareness-based and cooperation-based diversity training can reduce negative age biases, specifically impacting age stereotypes regarding a developer’s performance and the expectations held about their ability to be innovative.

Both studies found biases towards younger and older employees can be reduced using either workshop technique, but the cooperation-based intervention led to a reduction in biases over the longer term.

Cooperation-based workshops had a stronger impact on reducing age bias, on a longer-term basis, for groups under the age of 35, as well as groups over the age of 50.

Implications: The awareness-based approach demonstrated that diversity interventions could be delivered at scale, to larger audiences, without making attendance mandatory. By packaging diversity initiatives into ‘on the job’ tasks and activities, employees can learn about the importance and negative impact of age bias without it being ‘another commitment’ taking up their time.

Reducing age biases in the workplace on an ongoing basis comes down to collaborative practices that inform the way your team works on a day-to-day basis.

Not dealing with age biases in your business can lead to broken relationships, employee isolation and poor communication. This can have a huge impact on software development teams, and indeed any team that relies on creativity, collaboration and open communication.

Truly innovative teams rely on tacit learning and building shared knowledge, and for these to exist, team members first need a foundation to collaborate.

Weaving collaborative practices into the fabric of your organisation will ultimately lead to higher productivity, fewer mistakes, and happier teams.

References

Beelmann, A., Heinemann, K.S. and Saur, M. (2009). Interventionen zur Prävention von Vorurteilen und Diskriminierung. Diskriminierung und Toleranz: Psychologische Grundlagen und Anwendungsperspektiven, pp. 435-461.

Pettigrew , T. and Tropp, L. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta-analytic tests of three mediators. European Journal of Psychology, 38 (6), pp. 922-934.

Posthuma, R. and Campion M. (2009). Age stereotypes in the workplace: Common stereotypes, moderators, and future research directions. J. Manage, 35 (1), pp. 158-188.

Schloegel, U., Stegmann, S., Maedche, A. and van Dick, R. (2016). Reducing age stereotypes in software development: The effects of awareness and cooperation-based diversity interventions. The Journal of Systems and Software, 121, pp. 1-15.

Wegge, J., Jungmann, F., Liebermann, S., Shemla, M., Ries, B.C, Diestel, S. and Schmit, K.H. (2012). What makes age diverse teams effective? Results from a six year six-year research program. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation, 41, pp. 5145-5151.


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