Globalisation in the lecture room? Gender and cultural diversity in work groups
Kristianstad University, Sweden
This paper empirically investigates the relationship between cultural and gender diversity and performance in groups of business students working on complex assignments. The study finds that gender diversity in student groups has a positive influence on group outcomes, while cultural diversity, irrespective of its conceptualisation, leads to negative group outcomes. Process variables such as communication, conflict and effectiveness of problem solving were found not to be influenced by demographic diversity or to have any effect on group outcomes. While the non-finding in group process investigation might be attributed to methodological difficulties, the negative influence of cultural diversity in student groups on performance indicates the further need for facilitation of coaching students in intercultural communications and cross-cultural understanding among educators.
This article thus attempts to investigate the effects of cultural and gender diversity in student groups on group processes, as well as group related outcomes, while at the same time contributing to the ongoing debate on diversity in higher education. The aim of this study is to make theoretical and methodological contributions to research on cultural diversity. The methodological contribution of this article is represented by the alternative operationalisation of cultural diversity, expressed not only in terms of race, which has become a tradition in ethnic diversity-oriented research (e.g. Watson, Johnson & Merrit 1998, Watson et al., 2002; Cox, Lobel & McLeod, 1991; McLeod and Lobel, 1992; Oetzel, 1998), but in terms of nationality. The theoretical contribution of this article is an attempt to enquire into the intervening group processes, which is a fairly unexplored area due to its presumed complexity. Furthermore, this paper studies group processes on a self-reporting basis, which has been a common method used in assessing processes (Watson, BarNir & Pavur, 2005). Therefore, this paper proceeds with the literature review, followed by the presentation of the analysis and results, and concludes with a discussion on the findings.
The interest in the field has produced a vast amount of research that, however, is bitterly divided along three major lines. First, there is a disagreement over whether one can and should capture the processes taking place within the small group or team. Some researchers think it should be done (Jansen et al., 2010; Pelled, Eisenhardt & Xin, 1999), while others believe that, due to the complexity of group processes, their study should be avoided and focus should be placed instead on the direct link between demography and group performance (e.g., Pfeffer, 1983;), thus leaving the group processes variables in a so-called black box (Lawrence, 1997). The second area of contention concerns whether group demographic diversity has a positive or negative influence on group outcomes. The third issue concerns whether specific types of demographic diversity-namely: cultural diversity, which has become a topic of increased interest in recent years, fuelled by accelerating cultural diversification of the labour force, as well as the student body; and gender diversity, due to the increasing number of women entering institutions of higher educations-has a positive or negative influence on group process and group-related outcomes. Thus, what follows addresses the issues raised and presents a set of hypotheses based on the literature reviewed.
Results have been mixed by the influence of gender composition on team process (Watson, Johnson & Merrit, 1998). However, research indicates that gender diversity tends to affect behaviour, communication and individual experience within groups, while it does not affect group performance per se (Kimble, Yoshikawa & Zehr 1981; Mabry, 1985; Smith-Lovin & Brody, 1989). According to Wood (1987), gender-balanced groups would have more positive interactions, including communication and conflict reduction, compared to the predominantly male or female teams. Moreover, experimental studies by Stringer (1995) have shown that gender-balanced groups are more consensus-seeking, which improves communication within the group and reduces conflict. This leads us to predict that:
H1: Cultural diversity in learning teams will have a negative influence on group process.
H2: Gender diversity in learning teams will have a positive influence on group process.
H3: Effective communication, a decreasing degree of conflict and effective complex problem solving will have a positive influence on group outcomes.
When dealing with the influence of cultural diversity on group outcomes, early research has argued that the relation will be positive because diverse groups encompass alternative viewpoints and thus a larger critical base (Cox et.al., 1991). Moreover, early cultural studies by Hofstede (1984) and McCarrey (1988) had assumed that diversity of values would allow for more refined decisions, resulting in positive group and organisational outcomes. However, keeping in mind that the cultural diversity outcomes link ignores the process variables, one could assume that if cultural diversity influences process in a negative way, it will in turn have a negative effect on outcomes, as has been indicated in several later studies (Elron, 1997; Smith et al., 1994; Umans et.al., 2008).
Looking at the influence of gender diversity on group outcomes, a meta-analysis by Wood (1987) showed, for example, that mixed-gender groups tended to perform better than homogeneous-gender groups. Gender diversity was also proven to have an influence on group performance in higher education since females tend to perform better than males (Byrne, Flood & Willis, 2001), implying that a group with a larger number of females might perform better. However, a team that is homogeneous in gender will be limited in terms of the variety of input and diversity of opinion, thus reducing performance in a complex assignment and/or complex environment (Dess & Beard, 1984). Thus, we hypothesise that:
H4: Cultural diversity in learning teams will have a negative influence on group outcome.
H5: Gender diversity in learning teams will have a positive influence on group outcome.
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||0||5||5|
However, prior to enrolling in the course, all of the students had to prove an intermediary level of English from the high school, and present a transcript of records showing that they had at least one passed course in academic English from their home university and a recommendation from the English teacher at their home university. While the first two were general requirements for both Swedish and foreign students, the latter was a specific prerequisite for acceptance for the foreign students. Thus, with the removal of language being a part of the grade and the required English language knowledge for all students, one could assume that there were no influences of language over the performance of the student groups.
Moreover, foreign students were accepted into the course under the condition that they have passed courses at their home university corresponding to two years of full-time study, which put them on par with the Swedish students who took the course in their fifth semester of studies. The maximum possible grade for the case was 20 points. In order to ensure an absence of bias in the evaluation process, the names of group members were removed so that only the group number and the number of students in the group were known. The evaluator, who had several years of strategy teaching and strategy research experience, could not discover the identity of the people in the group.
As in the study by Umans et.al. (2008), process variables were measured on a self-reporting basis, where respondents were asked to mark on a seven-point Likert scale the degree of a certain process such as 'effectiveness in problem solving'.
Communication in the group was observed through three questions on constructiveness of discussion, informality of communication and effectiveness of communication flow. A reliability test of the three variables indicated acceptable reliability (Cronbach's alpha = 0.718). Effectiveness in problem solving was measured by self-evaluation of the group members. Conflict was measured by asking the respondents to indicate the degree of conflict present in the learning team while working on the assignment. The mean values of the responses to each question were used in the construction of the variables.
Cultural diversity was observed in each group by the standard deviation of Hofstede's (1984) four dimensions of culture depending on nationality: masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, and power distance. These dimensions are defined by Hofstede (1984; 1993) as:
Gender diversity was measured by self-identification by the group members and as a proportion of people dissimilar to others, in terms of gender in the group and has been done in accordance with Blau's seminal work-Inequality and Heterogeneity (1977)-which argues that proportion of majority/minority membership in the group helps determine the quality of relations between demographically different groups.
Group size was considered to be a control variable. When evaluating the performance of the group, the number of students who influenced the performance had to be considered. A group with more students would perform better (ceteris paribus) and receive a higher grade if the evaluator did not consider group size. Thus, if the evaluator is unable to consider the influence of size, we expect a positive relationship between size and performance.
The values for dependent variable Grade show that the groups received 15.04 points on average with rather small deviation, thus indicating a compressed grading (the minimum grade given was 10 and the maximum was 18). Group size ranged from 2 to 5, with the average being 3.5, and the deviation indicates that most of the groups contained 3 or 4 students. Gender diversity varied between 0 and 0.5, and the average of 0.13 indicates rather low gender diversity. In fact, about 17 of 29 groups had no gender diversity at all. Cultural diversity was measured as national diversity according to Hofstede's (1984) culture scale, which we will comment on later in the paper. The process variables show high averages in communication and effectiveness in problem solving, but lower in conflict.
Inspecting the correlation matrix, grade appears to correlate positively with gender diversity but negatively with cultural diversity. The process variables do not appear to correlate with grade, except for the positive correlation of effectiveness in problem solving. Thus, our hypotheses of culture (H4) and of gender (H5) appear to be supported. Process variables do not appear to be influenced by diversity and do not influence performance (H1: cultural diversity influences on process hypothesis are not supported; H2: gender diversity influences on process are not supported; H3: process influences on performance are not supported). Our control variable-group size-is not correlated to grade, which indicates that the grader considered group size when evaluating the performance of the group.
The correlation matrix indicates that we can expect collinearity problems for the process variables since they are highly correlated. No other independent variable appears to present collinearity problems.
Our first analysis (Table 3) tests the direct influences of diversity on the performance (black box model where group process remains unexplored) regression model, where the diversity measures are directly correlated with the performance (or the grade).
|2. Group size||0.236||0.619|
|3. Gender diversity||0.504**||2.424|
|4. Cultural diversity||-0.560***||0.009|
|Adj R2 0.403|
|*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001|
The model is highly significant, as it is able to explain 40 per cent of the variance. Gender diversity indicates support of H5-increased gender diversity will increase performance. Cultural diversity, measured according to nationality and coded according to Hofstede's (1984) culture index, has a negative influence on performance, indicating support of H4.
Next, we analysed the relationship between the independent variables of diversity and the intermediating process variables of communication, conflict and effectiveness of problem solving. But only the regression model with the highest R2 is presented in Table 4.
As is evident in Table 4, none of the diversity variables correlated with the process variable, as the results in all of the other regression analyses showed. Thus, there is no support in our analyses for the proposition that diversity influences the process (H1 and H2 are not supported).
|3. Gender diversity||0.238||1.205|
|4. Cultural diversity||-0.402*||0.004|
|Adj R2 0.090|
|*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001**|
The third model is the relationship between the process variables and the performance variable of the grade. Since it was found that the process variables created collinearity problems, any model including all three process variables could not be analysed.
Summarising the analyses, we have found an indication that diversity influences performance: gender diversity positively and national diversity negatively. No indications could be found in support of the intermediating model of process (H4 and H5 are not supported).
Following suggestions of previous research (Milliken & Martins, 1996; Umans et.al., 2008) arguing for a multidimensional measurement of culture, this paper attempted to measure culture in terms of Hofstede's (1984) cultural dimensions, including individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, and masculinity/femininity. The findings indicate that this type of measurement is appropriate when looking at the group outcomes; however, it is possible that oversimplified measures of processes did not allow for plausible results concerning the culture-process outcome link.
As hypothesised, gender diversity had a positive influence on group performance, which is in line with previous research (e.g., Wood, 1987), while cultural diversity was shown to have a negative influence on group performance, which has also been supported by authors in the field (e.g., Chatman & Flynn, 2001; Flynn, Chatman & Spataro, 2001; Umans, Collin & Tagesson, 2008). Cultural diversity's negative influence on group outcomes is, however, a rather unfortunate finding, taking into consideration that today's workplace is becoming more global and requires intercultural communication competence, and the ability to cooperate with people of different cultural backgrounds. However, one could assume that the negative influences found through the analysis can be explained by the fact that the student groups under study had not been working together for very long. According to Watson Johnson, Kumar & Critelli (1998), the benefits of diversity become apparent only later in the work group's life. Watson and his colleagues' observation derives from the groups working over one semester together, thus one could assume that groups investigated in this article did not have enough time to reap the benefits of their cultural diversity. One can also not discount the possibility that the assessment in general, and grading and criteria in particular, could have resulted in the culturally homogeneous groups outperforming culturally diverse groups.
Research in the field of cultural sensitivity of assessment in higher education has a long tradition of evaluating a variety of assessments and sensitivity towards minorities and foreign students (Afrin, 2009, Sleeter, 2004). Several researchers came to the conclusion that Western-oriented, standardised assessment forms, referring among others to multiple-choice tests, usually put the foreign and minority students in a disadvantage (Gopaul-McNichol & Armour-Thomas, 2002; Philpott, Nesbitt, Cahill & Jeffery. 2004). Furthermore, group assessments where students are encouraged to work on the common task are believed to be better suited for culturally diverse classes (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2005). While this study used the latter assessment, several authors have criticised it, positing that group assessment in groups leads to collective rather than individual grades, which in turn does not evaluate each and every student's input into the assignments (Johnston & O, 2010). This could possibly discourage those students from individualistic cultures to put less effort into group assignment, while would put more pressure on the students from more collectivistic cultures, who would be working harder to satisfy the group.. Thus, one solution to these types of issues could be involving students in the assessment of the objectives each member of the group has reached, objectives that group members have agreed on prior to the assignments. (Biggs, 2003)
Previous studies have argued that the demography outcome relationship has intervening process variables that must be taken into consideration; however, the present study does not realise this expectation. There could be several reasons for this non-realisation. First, the problem could lie in the measurement of the process variables. Second, the problem may originate in possible shortcomings of the self-reporting technique used by students when assessing processes in their own groups. The latter theory could be explained by the findings of psychology research, which posits that perceptions of various processes can be influenced by culture-specific interpretations (e.g., Giles & Johnson, 1986): what one culture might interpret as a constructive discussion might be interpreted by another as an aggressive conversation. Third, the non-realisation could be a result of the avoidance of variables that moderate the diversity-process relationship (Ely & Thomas, 2001)-shared goals could be one such type of variables (Larkey, 1996).
The problems of methodology could not be discounted as a reason for non-findings in the diversity-process outcome investigation in this paper, and in other diversity research in general (Pitcher & Smith, 2001). Drawing on the discussion above concerning the shortcomings of the self-reporting technique, one of the solutions, although not a panacea, might be the use of observation as a method of investigation of processes in diverse groups. Observation as a method allows for understanding of other cultures (Silverman, 2006), as well as understanding the context of the interaction from the participant's perspective (Bryman, 1992). This method could be more advantageous than interviews or surveys in three broad ways. First, the researcher observing the social interaction could be assumed to have more experience in interpreting social interactions than the individuals who are actually interacting, who, as in case of our paper, may have added a cultural dimension into their own interpretations of the interaction. Second, the non-involvement, as well as the indifference to the group work outcome, of the researcher making an observation could reduce the bias that is usually present in the group members' self-reporting of the group processes. Third, if two observers were to be used, the interpretation of the observation could have relatively high reliability due to the inter-rating.
Thus, the theoretical contribution of this paper is expressed in the enquiry into the black box of group processes that, however, as shown in this study does not provide a better understanding of the relationship between gender/cultural diversity and group performance, presumably due to the way the black box variables have been operationalised and/or measured. However, there are certain indications that alternative methods in measuring these processes could yield more interaction revealing results. The methodological contribution of this paper is expressed in terms of the use of alternative and more thorough operationalisation of cultural diversity. Instead of measuring diversity on the proportion basis (based on race or just creating the dummy variable) of culturally diverse/homogeneous teams, this study has investigated cultural diversity by using Hofstede's four cultural dimensions that are based on the nationality dimension of culture. Contributions claimed in this paper could serve as a call for further research in the area on cultural/gender diversity in learning teams, and its influences on team process and team outcomes. Usage of observation as a method in observing team interactions could be one way to bring the research in the area further and to the new depths. The investigation of personality variables in conjunction with cultural and gender variables could add another dimension to the team research. Investigation of the demographic diversity on team interactions in longitudinal studies would be another suggestion for future research, since the number of experimental studies has indicated that team tenure has a moderating effect on the relationship between team diversity and team process (Watson Johnson, Kumar & Merrit, 1998).
Another possible way forward would be to use a more complex measure of team process, for example a construct called behavioural integration being a meta-construct encompassing a variety of processes taking place in the groups. Investigation of performance measures other than grade could also be a fruitful field of research, for example concentration on the outcome progression in the longitudinal studies could show the rate of improvement of teams compared to previous tasks, as well as in comparison to other groups. Moreover, researchers could enlarge the context within which the learning teams are operating: rather than concentrating on just one university or one country (as this study has done), one could investigate teams from different universities performing similar tasks for example, the virtual education environment could provide a perfect setting within which team learning and interactions could be investigated.
Thus, one could interpret the overall result of the study as a call for specific action in managing diversity for higher performance. One could form learning teams that are gender diverse and culturally homogeneous in order to get best group performance. Tempting as it is, one should however, consider this result in the context of increasing intercultural interactions within classrooms, universities, institutions, and society as a whole, where avoiding or arranging demographic diversity is impossible since it is a given situation. Therefore, this study indicates a need for managing diversity in the classroom in order to prepare the students for intercultural interactions in the globalised world. One of the possible solutions to this could be an introduction of diversity management courses into the university curriculum. Being part of these courses could benefit both the university staff and students in managing the demographic diversity they are being exposed to.
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|Author: Timurs Umans is a lecturer in Business Administration at Kristianstad University. He has received his MSc in Business Administration from Kristianstad University and is currently a PhD Candidate in Corporate Governance and Strategy at the School of Economics and Management, Lund University. He is lecturing in strategic management, human resource management and international business at the Centre for Business Studies, School of Health and Society, Kristianstad University. His research interests are in the area of strategy and corporate governance, and his dissertation project deals with cultural diversity of top management teams and its influence on organisational outcomes.|
Please cite as: Umans, T. (2011). Globalisation in the lecture room? Gender and cultural diversity in work groups. Issues In Educational Research, 21(1), 88-103. http://www.iier.org.au/iier21/umans.html