Love/Hate Diversity
© 23 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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My love/hate relationship with diversity initiatives, part 1: the hate.


As I have gradually become more and more involved in issues of diversity and equal opportunity I have long had to struggle against several opinions held from an early age. Before I go into my ways around these issues, it seems wise to air them.

Preference Over Whom?

The earliest argument I had with diversity advocacy was the observation that jobs, promotions, etc., are competitive. Thus the only way to give preference to members of one group is to advance them at the expense of members of other groups.

The most obvious problem with preferential treatment was the unfairness to other groups. As I have learned more about implicit bias, stereotype threat, and the like this concern lessened. There are real, measurable forces working against under-represented groups that cannot be removed without changing society as a whole. Preferential treatment is an effort to balance this out. If it works is a question for a later post.

A secondary problem with preferential treatment is its tendency to exacerbate distinctions. If I receive support because I am of Ruthenian descent then both I and those with whom I compete are compelled to think of me as Ruthenian. The pinnacle of equality—non-distinguishablity—is unattainable in this setting.

Some Differences are Real

The next argument against diversity advocacy has to do with true differences. If I’m running a moving business I have a natural incentive to hire men over women because men are generally bulkier and better able to lift large objects. Social differences are also real: people react more positively to being cold-called by a female than a male, and some accents are perceived as more refined, more trustworthy, more calming, etc., than others.

Shouldn’t an employer be free to hire the best candidate for the job, even when the qualifications are based on identity rather than skill? Aren’t stereotypes useful mental shortcuts, the in-built discernment that lets us process a complicated world?

Meddling isn’t Safe

There is another problem shared by not only diversity but any initiative to “‍fix‍” society. Society is a big, complicated thing, and meddling can have unintended consequences. It is almost impossible to say “‍let’s help group X‍” without also communicating the implicit message “‍…because they clearly can’t succeed without some extra help.‍” A campaign of “‍stop hurting group Y‍” will be perceived by some non-Ys as “‍Ys are wimpy‍” and by some Ys as “‍non-Ys are evil.‍”

What human or group thereof would you trust to fix society without messing it up?

In my next post I’ll discuss the love side of my love/hate relationship with diversity initiatives: why they are actually important and worthy of pursuit. Thereafter I will share how some of the concerns in this post can be used as metrics to tell good initiatives from bad ones and as criteria to consider when designing pro-diversity policies.

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