Diversity for the Sake of Diversity

Commonly, people advocate for the importance of diversity. One of the usual replies to this sort of reasoning is that companies should be meritocracies, and that a company ought not strive to be diverse just to be diverse. In general, the argument is that diversity, in and of itself, is important, and that companies that are diverse get benefits just from being diverse.

Kristjan Wager at Pro-Science has written an article that aims to defend the latter view. He lists three main reasons why diversity — presumably in and of itself — is important:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

So, let’s start with the first one. It’s obvious that if people are going to be excluded from a job due to a trait that isn’t related to the job itself that would be unfair. However, that’s not enough to establish that diversity, in and of itself, is actually beneficial. After all, the argument still holds that we should be hiring on the basis of merit, and not consider diversity at all. Wager replies to that, quoting an argument by Eric Ries:

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

Wager summarizes it:

A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

Well, first, again this doesn’t establish that diversity, in and of itself, is desirable or at all important. If a company could be assured that its hiring practices were really completely based on merit, then the diversity — or lack thereof — that results from that would be something to merely shrug at. So the best this argument can do is say that if you don’t have a diverse workplace, it may be the case that your hiring practices are based on something other than merit (which would lead to the second reason, about biases, and so not apply to this one anymore).

But more importantly, Wager’s reasoning that if you’re hiring on merit that you should reflect the diversity of the society you operate in is false. If you are hiring completely on merit, your workforce should reflect the diversity of the qualified and interested potential employees for your field. If you have a society that is 51% women and 49% men, but 80% of the people who graduate with software design qualifications are men, if you hire software designers completely on merit you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be men, and if 80% of those who go through school for nursing are women, then if you’re hiring nurses you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be women. So, if a company compares their diversity to that of the field of potential candidates and finds that they don’t match, then they might have biased hiring practices. Or they might not, since these are all statistical calculations and that means that some companies, even in the above cases, will have higher or lower percentages while still hiring completely based on merit.

Now, what both of these points mean, taken together, is that companies ought not strive for diversity in and of itself, but instead to hire based entirely on merit, and if they can do that then they’ll get the appropriate amount of diversity. So companies that are trying to be fair ought to work on having fair hiring practices, and not even look at how diverse their company is at the end of it all.

Which leads to the second point, that maybe there are biases in the hiring practices:

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it will just introduce competing biases. But this assumes that you can’t make hiring practices that are totally on merit and not free from bias … or, at least, reasonably so. At any rate, again, we need to make sure that we’re hiring on the basis of merit, not on the basis of diversity. The argument that a more diverse workforce might reduce these biases doesn’t justify hiring on the basis of diversity instead of on the basis of merit. And the other benefit given here:

Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Wager goes on to quote a study that says that companies with more diverse leadership tend to have better financial results, but a correlation is not causation, so we’d need to do more work to figure out why that’s the case. After all, it is possible that those companies are able to be more diverse because, due to other factors, they can handle having a more diverse leadership group because their finances are just in better shape. After all, having different backgrounds and different viewpoints doesn’t always work, because you end up with more disagreements and have a harder time ensuring that everyone is on the same page. So differing viewpoints doesn’t always help you. In addition, most of the focus is on gender or racial diversity … but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to significant differences in overall background, or ideas. A black woman and a white man who were both raised in an upper class, academic family have more in common than that white man has with me, from a working class family who was the first on at least one side of the family to go to university. Ironically, then, hiring on the basis of gender and racial diversity, might, in fact, provide more homogeneity, rather than less.

Thus, if having different viewpoints is important and useful to your business, you ought to set that out as a hiring criteria and find ways to test and select for those differing viewpoints. You shouldn’t just aim to get gender or racial diversity, because that’s not necessarily going to get what you want and is actually unfair to boot.

The attempt to argue that it is better for businesses to be diverse is a common one, but tying the argument directly to merit is an interesting approach. Unfortunately, at the end of the day for all of the benefits or potential benefits the right approach is to select for those specific benefits, and not for at least gender and racial diversity. Thus, at best, selecting for that might be a convenient way to get some of the other benefits … but, overdone, doing that will work against those benefits. So, ultimately, diversity for the sake of diversity remains undefended; we really ought to get those benefits “honestly” rather than through the end run of selecting for diversity.

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