Age and gender diversity makes (no) difference

The diversity debate is back with a vengeance in the public debate about women’s quotas. Diversity in teams is not just a political ambition, but apparently a lever for successful cooperation. Many companies think that gender diversity in their teams will mean higher performance. The same is said of age diversity. But is there indeed a link between the performance of teams and their demographic make-up?

Psychology research has long dealt with the effects of different demographic traits on team performance. The findings are to some extent contradictory. To reach evidence based recommendations for action, a research team under Suzanne Bell at the DePaul University of Chicago analysed all publications on the effects of age and gender diversity on team performance in a meta-analysis. Apart from the demographic traits age and gender, it also considered other traits like educational background and functional position (e.g. marketing, sales, HR). The researchers also distinguished between the types of teams (top management teams, other teams) and the types of performances (efficiency, overall performance, innovation, or creativity).

The results show – in all of the studies – that age diversity has no real impact on team performance. Surprisingly, gender diversity even reduced team performance. Only diversity in terms of educational backgrounds and functional arrangements improved performance. Specifically, a range of different experiences from different areas of a business will help innovation and creativity, respectively product development and design. Moreover, different educational backgrounds – in terms of types of qualification, not highest degrees attained – will benefit performance at the top management level. The reasons for this might lie in the fact that prior experiences enrich the team and add to its knowledge base for answering new or innovative challenges.
When setting up teams, companies should consider their mission. If the mission is innovation or creativity, the functional background of the team members deserves particular attention. For teams at the top of management, the educational story of its team members will be more important. Working on age or gender diversity alone, as many people would demand, will have little impact on team performance.