Photo of Traci Sitzmann and members of her project team
Professor Traci Sitzmann and members of her Grand Challenge project team.

CU Denver Researchers Look at the Role of a Diverse Workforce on Productivity

February 19, 2024

Women earn 82 cents compared to every dollar made by men, according to the Pew Research Center. That difference, known as the gender pay gap, has remained essentially stagnant from where it was two decades ago. And despite recent promises from chief executives of their commitment to diversity and inclusion, incomes for people of color have actually trended downward, said CU Denver Management Professor Traci Sitzmann. “If everybody was doing as well as the CEOs are saying, we should see the overarching statistics trending in the right direction,” Sitzmann said. 

But we’re not, so Sitzmann and her colleagues are working to understand why—and what might work to change the status quo. “In the U.S., we have a shareholder-first business model. By demonstrating positive effects of diversity, wage equity, and inclusion on labor productivity, CEOs can live up to a dual-purpose business model where their social goals live alongside profitability,” Sitzmann said.  

In fact, some recent research shows that greater workforce diversity leads to better productivity and profits. “Organizations that are making meaningful progress [with DEI], where they have gender wage equality, where they live up to promises of work-life balance…those factors drive labor productivity,” Sitzmann said.  

A team of 25 CU Denver researchers—led by Sitzmann—aims to dig deeper into the hypothesis that if a company’s employee demographics better represent the broader community, it can lead to a bigger bottom line. Their seed money is funded by CU Denver’s Research Grand Challenges initiative

The research team will focus on employee insights and an analysis of salary and labor productivity data from thousands of U.S. and U.K. companies. The researchers hope the work they produce will help educate business leaders and the community about the impact that a diverse workforce, which reflects your region, can have on workplace productivity.  

For example, some countries’ leaders believe that shining more light on wage gaps will lead companies to pay their employees more equitably (England requires companies with at least 250 employees to publicly disclose their gender pay gap data). “At least then you know what the data suggests and that may enable employees to choose an employer that aligns with their values,” Sitzmann said. “Other countries are doing better than the United States in pay transparency.” 

As Sitzmann began her research, she met with leaders of the Colorado Inclusive Economy, a statewide movement of CEOs focused on improving DEI strategies. They advised that equity strategy must start with future employees’ education and ensure that students of all backgrounds have resources to succeed, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The idea is that while CEOs are pledging to recruit and train people of color, systematic inequity in educational preparation is a substantial hurdle to progressing toward equity. 

The research team is also examining equity within Denver Public Schools (DPS). Their goal is to unveil which educational choices produce the strongest learning outcomes and foster greater equity within DPS. Thanks to grants and private partnerships, Sitzmann plans to offer students free access to STEM college classes and apprenticeships and then track their progress. The research will extend beyond K–12 education, too.  

Sitzmann’s team is working with CU Denver’s leadership to track what factors lead some diverse students to drop out. Sitzmann would like to use predictive modeling to flag warning signs—such as declining grades or skipping meetings with academic advisors—and to connect students with resources, when needed. Other universities have found success with using such artificial intelligence programs to improve retention rates. “We want to maximize our students’ potential,” she said.