As a response to the shifting population demographics in the United States, issues related to diversity have received increased attention in recent years. The word diversity simply means difference, but the term is most commonly used to refer to differences among people. The ways in which individuals may differ from one another are considerable. Some perspectives argue for a narrow diversity focus, whereas others believe that diversity should encompass the myriad ways that people may differ from one another.

Defining Diversity

Some scholars adopt definitions of diversity that focus on particular demographic differences among individuals. Specifically, differences in ethnicity, race, and gender have been the most emphasized dimensions of diversity. The focus on these particular identity elements stems from the sociopolitical history of prejudice and discrimination toward women and minorities. Furthermore, focusing on differences based in ethnicity, race, and gender draws attention to the differential distribution of power in the United States. Traditionally, women and individuals of color have not had the power allotted to men and Whites. Therefore, some scholars argue that certain elements of diversity, such as ethnicity, race, and gender, have more serious social ramifications than other elements and, as a result, should receive primary focus. Proponents of this view believe that treating all elements of diversity equivalently would mask and invalidate the history of discrimination and marginalization suffered by groups that are not near the top of the power hierarchy. More recently, others have argued that additional demographic characteristics, such as sexual orientation, age, and religion, should also be included in definitions of diversity given the emerging evidence of discrimination based on these social categories. Those who focus on power differentials and resulting discrimination tend to concentrate on demographic elements of diversity.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

Other scholars contend that focusing on demographic aspects of diversity is limiting, and therefore they adopt broader definitions where other differences between people may be recognized. In addition to less-accentuated aspects of demographic diversity, such as age, sexual orientation, and religion, others contend that differences in personality, ability, work styles, and ideology are also important dimensions of diversity that have been underemphasized. Advocates of broader definitions of diversity argue that no one group benefits from diversity over others. They contend that by expanding the definition, one may be more likely to gain the support of White men and others who may feel marginalized by more narrow conceptualizations of diversity. It is argued that the emphasis should be on improving the educational and working environment for everyone, not just individuals from traditionally marginalized groups. Therefore, it is argued that a more inclusive definition of diversity benefits everyone.

The approach to diversity that one adopts has implications for counseling practice and research. For example, a therapist who adopts a narrow approach to diversity while working with an older Latina lesbian may overlook critical issues related to age, gender, or sexual orientation by focusing only on ethnic aspects of the client’s experience. On the other hand, a therapist who adheres to a broad diversity perspective may fail to attend to pertinent issues in the therapeutic relationship by downplaying the importance of ethnicity or race in an African American client’s experience. Sometimes the adoption of a broad perspective of diversity is symptomatic of an unacknowledged discomfort with more provocative aspects of diversity (e.g., race or sexual orientation) on the part of the therapist. For example, a White therapist who is uncomfortable with people of color may always avoid issues of race by emphasizing other broader aspects of diversity, allowing the therapist to avoid acknowledging or working through his or her prejudices. Both broad and narrow definitions of diversity offer their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. In the end, individuals should weigh the costs, benefits, and implications of adhering to either approach.

Ideological Perspectives of Diversity

The two most prominent ideological perspectives that influence how individuals conceptualize and view diversity are the melting pot and multiculturalism.

Melting Pot

The melting pot refers to the idea that individuals of different cultural backgrounds in the United States assimilate to share one common national identity. This conceptualization of diversity presumes that differences among individuals can be harmoniously blended into one cohesive social product. In this view, differences among people are thought to help facilitate the achievement of a common goal. One criticism of the melting pot perspective is the implicit expectation that ethnic minorities and others should shed their native cultural norms and values and assimilate to dominant U.S. culture (e.g., White, middle-class culture). Furthermore, there is an assumption that individuals who attempt to shed their cultural traits and assimilate to dominant U.S. culture will be accepted as one of the majority. As many have noted, groups that exhibit physical differences from those of the majority often have great difficulty being accepted into the majority culture. For example, it is a common experience for Asian Americans to be asked what country they are from when, in fact, they were born in the United States. Furthermore, individuals who have a strong cultural and ethnic identity may see assimilation as something to avoid at all costs. The idea of losing or shedding cultural norms, behaviors, and identity is highly undesirable to individuals who value their cultural background and heritage.


Multiculturalism refers to the idea that social differences should be acknowledged, celebrated, encouraged, and preserved. Within the context of multiculturalism, diversity is affirmed and considered a valuable asset. One of the myths surrounding multi-culturalism is that it is inherently divisive given the emphasis on cultural difference. Contrary to the melting pot ideal, the goal of multiculturalism is not to blend cultural differences but to maintain and take advantage of social differences. Research has found that multiculturalism can help achieve unifying super-ordinate goals, such as democracy, freedom, and justice, by fostering an open dialogue and facilitating contact for individuals from different backgrounds.

Counseling psychologists were among the first to address multicultural issues within psychology. The changing demographics of the United States served as a clarion call to counseling psychologists to develop culturally relevant skills for working with diverse populations. As a result of the multicultural movement within counseling psychology, practitioners and educators began to emphasize the importance of building cultural expertise and increasing multicultural competence. Some counseling psychologists contend that awareness or acknowledgment of cultural differences is not a desirable end goal because it does not lead to effective outcomes in therapy or society. Instead, they argue that mutual enrichment for all parties is necessary to achieve the true goals of multi-culturalism. One component necessary for achieving mutual enrichment is the acknowledgment of power differences through open and honest dialogue about equity and opportunity in society.

Some counseling psychologists argue that several components are necessary if a therapist wishes to increase his or her level of cultural competence. First, therapists need to acknowledge their own privilege as well as the biases that may be present in a given social situation. Second, therapists who aim for cultural competence value others’ feedback, listen carefully, and diligently work to reduce their own prejudiced attitudes. Finally, a multiculturally competent therapist aims to increase awareness of his or her own biases and assumptions, gain knowledge about the cultural context in which clients are embedded, and become adept in advancing positive change.

Similar to the controversy surrounding the conceptualization of diversity, there has also been debate within the field of counseling psychology about adopted definitions of multiculturalism. Some argue that multiculturalism should be defined broadly and include differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and socioeconomic status, among other elements of social difference, whereas others contend that conceptualizations should be more limited and focused. Proponents of the more focused view contend that the adoption of broad definitions of multiculturalism allows individuals to treat all differences equally, therefore obfuscating the deeper level issues related to race, ethnicity, and gender. By adopting a broad conceptualization of multiculturalism, individuals from dominant groups (e.g., Whites) may treat all human difference equally, thereby avoiding issues related to their role in the oppression of women and minorities. The espousal of a more focused multicultural definition allows individuals to delve deeper and explore the values, beliefs, and norms of different cultural groups as well as their role in prejudice and discrimination.

Diversity in the Workplace

Several scholars have noted the benefits of increasing diversity in organizations. In addition to the social justice-oriented goals of increasing equality and reducing discrimination in organizations for individuals of diverse backgrounds, organizations also increase overall organizational effectiveness when they successfully include and manage diverse employees. One benefit of diversity for organizations is that they increase overall profits when they can successfully retain and acquire employees from diverse backgrounds. Not only does successful retention of diverse employees reduce turnover costs, but it also aids in the acquisition of highly talented minorities and women to the organization. Individuals from underrepresented backgrounds have a tendency to seek employment in organizations that have successfully retained other individuals from diverse backgrounds. The inclusion of individuals from diverse backgrounds in an organization aids in creating a work environment that fosters creativity, which results in broader market perspective. For example, people of different cultural groups tend to want to buy a product that is supported or created by a person from their group. The presence of a multiculturally diverse staff also may help clients from diverse backgrounds feel more comfortable when seeking services from a counseling center or practice. If they perceive the environment to be open to their interests and experience, they may be more likely to seek and remain in therapy. It may be quite overwhelming for a person of color, for example, to walk into a counseling center where there are no people of color and discuss issues related to their experiences as a minority. When organizations take into account viewpoints of women and men of different cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds, they increase their client base.

Another aspect of an organization that is improved with diversity is problem solving. Diverse groups bring a broader range of experiences that can help in problem solving because heterogeneous groups produce solutions of better quality than those produced by homogenous groups. The mere presence of people with diverse opinions improves the quality of the decision processes regardless of whether or not the minority view was used. Overall, diverse groups provide an organization with a competitive advantage because efficiency in problem solving increases and results in better decisions.

As diversity increases in an organization, the organization members become more flexible and able to adapt to problems and issues that arise. Organizational flexibility is increased if diversity and its successful management result in broadened procedures and less-standardized management methods. The organization becomes more fluid and adaptable because it must adjust to the increase of women and men of different cultural and social backgrounds. Successfully managing diversity within an organization leads to system flexibility that results in a better and more efficient working environment.

Although the benefits of diversity in the workplace have been documented, arguments against increasing diversity in the workplace persist. Opponents of diversity in organizations argue that the increase of minorities and women in the workplace weakens organizational effectiveness by increasing conflict among employees and, in turn, reducing their productivity. Therefore, some organizations aim to keep their organizations as homogeneous as possible to avoid the perceived conflict that would be produced if they increased the level of diversity in their organizations.

Furthermore, detractors of diversity argue that increasing diversity in the workplace also results in a greater number of ill-equipped and unqualified employees. This view stems from negative stereotypes about beneficiaries of affirmative action who are usually perceived to be minorities and women. Unfortunately, one of the prevailing myths surrounding affirmative action is that unqualified persons obtain positions over more-qualified individuals. Affirmative action programs that utilize quotas to increase the number of minorities and women in the workplace have been deemed illegal and very rarely exist in organizations. When they are detected, they are usually quickly dismantled. Furthermore, studies have shown that beneficiaries and nonbeneficiaries of affirmative action in organizations yield similar productivity levels and outcomes.

Scholars argue that the consequences of increased diversity in an organization are related to the perceived commitment to diversity from the upper echelons of an organization. Organizations that lack strong vision and leadership in terms of how to address diversity issues have the most conflict in their organizations. The organizations that are most successful in managing diversity are the ones that encourage fairness at all levels and attempt to utilize all the skills and benefits that diverse employees bring to an organization.

Diversity in Higher Education

In recent years, greater attention has been given to the role of diversity in higher education. The widely publicized affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan (i.e., Grutter v. Bollinger, Gratz v. Bollinger) reinvigorated the debate surrounding the role of diversity and affirmative action in institutions of higher education across the United States. Proponents of diversity in higher education cited the benefits to students and society, while opponents referred to the perceived cost associated with diversifying an institution.

Colleges and universities are charged with the task of preparing students for their future as citizens. Students receive not only education that is pertinent to their career goals but also informal training on how to function in a democratic and diverse society. Their daily interactions in college help prepare them for the adult world outside the college context. Arguably, the time spent in the college environment is among the only chances in life where people may acquire skills designed to aid them in becoming competent workers and citizens in a culturally diverse society.

Scholars have argued that diverse environments help facilitate psychological and intellectual growth needed for college students to lead fulfilling lives after college. First and foremost, diverse environments help students become more active learners. Most people engage in automatic thought processes that require little effort. The goal of most professors in the classroom is to help stimulate critical and effortful thinking. Students must engage in controlled or effortful thinking when they learn something new because they have no prior experience with the content and therefore must think carefully about how to accommodate the new information.

Novel situations also promote effortful thinking. Students on a college campus who grew up in racially homogenous environments may experience a set of novel situations when they set foot on a diverse college campus. In addition to formal situations such as the classroom, informal interactions that may occur in residence halls, public dining areas, and other places provide students with opportunities to interact with individuals from backgrounds different from their own. Other elements that promote critical thinking include instability, discontinuity, and discrepancy.

These elements stem from cognitive-developmental theories that suggest that there needs to be some level of discomfort and uncertainty to promote critical and effortful thinking. Novelty, instability, discontinuity, and discrepancy all help aid the effortful processing of new information. Diverse college campuses provide an environment for these processes to work so that students can grow intellectually.

Social science research has documented the ways in which students are enriched in a learning environment. A student’s quality of thinking depends, in part, on his or her social environment. One mechanism that further enriches the learning environment, by fostering critical thinking, is disequilibrium. Disequilibrium is achieved when an idea is presented that causes students to rethink notions they may have regarding a given idea. This may occur when a student from a different background asks a question from a different perspective and, as a result, challenges others to rethink their notions regarding the subject.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has had a long and controversial history since it was first mentioned in President John Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 of 1961. The order required federal contractors to take “affirmative action” to end discrimination against minorities. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Right Act prohibited discrimination in employment. Title VII allowed individuals who were discriminated against to sue their employers. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson extended the policy to include women into the protected category. Employers were required to submit reports about their recruitment and hiring efforts and to explain how they would counteract inequality in their organization. Employers at some institutions of higher education started to keep careful records of the demographic characteristics of their applicant pools.

The topic of affirmative action often incites strong emotional responses either in favor of or against the policy. Individuals launch into heated debates without actually defining what they mean by affirmative action. Some social science scholars define affirmative action as any effort undertaken by organizations and institutions that are designed to ensure equality of opportunity and outcome for everyone. Federal employers are required by law to implement affirmative action programs in their organizations and institutions. Private institutions, although not required by law, also often put into practice affirmative action programs as a means to increase diversity in their institutions.

The mechanism by which diversity in the workplace and higher education is increased is through affirmative action. Affirmative action programs in the workplace may vary in their goals. Some emphasize recruitment of qualified minorities and women, whereas others implement additional programs designed to ensure retention of their diverse employees. Other programs may focus on the promotion of minorities and women within the workplace. Most often, affirmative action programs are designed to recruit and hire individuals in the organization, and diversity management programs manage the diversity within the organization after the employees have been hired.

In higher education, affirmative action programs are implemented to increase racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses. The goal of most higher education institutions that value diversity is to admit enough individuals to develop a critical mass of minority students. These policies aim not only to increase the numbers of diverse students but also to admit those who are capable of withstanding the demands of college work. Furthermore, some social scientists argue that affirmative action policies are necessary to guarantee fairness in institutions of higher education because affirmative action programs emphasize outcomes. It is not enough to increase opportunity for underrepresented groups; one must implement procedures to ensure that opportunity translates into results.

The importance of effectively managing diversity will become more vital as the United States becomes more diverse. Individuals of European descent who can be categorized as Caucasian are projected to be less than 50% of the population by the year 2050, thereby making people of color the majority. Attention to issues of diversity is especially crucial in the workplace and in higher education given the role these institutions have in helping individuals lead successful and fulfilling lives. Multiculturally competent counseling professionals who are trained in areas of diversity may be called upon to provide training services to organizations and institutions of higher learning. The training that counseling psychologists receive may help organizations and institutions communicate effectively by encouraging open dialogue and aiding in the deconstruction of biases and prejudices. The shifting population demographics in the United States necessitates further investigation of all aspects of diversity to ensure that individuals have a chance to live in an equitable, just, and democratic society.


  1. Blaine, B. E. (2000). The psychology of diversity: Perceiving and experiencing social difference. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
  2. Cox, T. H., & Blake, S. (1991). Managing cultural diversity: Implications for organizational competitiveness. Academy of Management Executive, 5, 45-58.
  3. Crosby, F. J. (2004). Affirmative action is dead: Long live affirmative action. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Gurin, P., Lehman, J. S., & Lewis, E. (2004). Defending diversity: Affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  5. Locke, D. C. (1990). A not so provincial view of multicultural counseling. Counselor Education & Supervision, 30, 18-25.
  6. Smith, T. B. (2004). Practicing multiculturalism: Affirming diversity in counseling and psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  7. Stockdale, M. S., & Crosby, F. J. (2004). The psychology and management of workplace diversity. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

See also: