Love/Hate Diversity
© 24 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
other posts


My love/hate relationship with diversity initiatives, part 2: the love.


As I have gradually become more and more involved in issues of diversity and equal opportunity I have come to see them as among the more important issues out there. Before I post on ways to resolve them, it seems wise to post why they matter.


The traditional view of diversity issues is that we need to combat bigotry, where people consciously and intentionally place members of some groups above members of others. Bigotry does exist, and where it does it is reprehensible, but it is being rapidly conquered by existing social forces, so it’s not a major focus of diversity meetings I’ve attended.

Comfort and Emotional Support

The most common view I find among those not active in promoting diversity is that diversity efforts are fighting to make minority cultures comfortable. This can stir up some resentment: “‍so you and I have different cultures; why should I adapt to yours instead of you adopting mine? You’re the one who decided you wanted my life; you should make the sacrifices.‍”

While these sentiments have some truth to them and I have little sympathy for those who demand without offering change, there is a very real level of comfort absent when you are a minority. If you haven’t experienced this, try it out. There are classes you can sign up for that are not typical for your demographic; try being the male in a pilates class, the kid in a genealogy class, etc. Even when people are excited you are there, you will feel your difference. You won’t fit in.

Emotional comfort may be a difficult thing to rate, but it does matter.

Implicit Bias

Even if you think you are fair without any hint of bigotry, you suffer from implicit bias. In virtually every brain, it requires more effort to think of “‍John the Nurse‍” than “‍Jane the Nurse‍” because culture has reinforced the idea that nurses and people named Jane are both female, while people named John are male. And since it isn’t as natural mentally, when hiring you’ll feel a vague sense of something not sitting right about John’s application. These get much more complicated with people applying less scrutiny to the stereotypical strengths of a candidate’s demographic group, etc., but the underlying principle is the same.

As far as I know, the only way to remove particular implicit biases is to retrain these associations one by one by dint of exposure. Fortunately, they can be countered without this daunting task by recognizing their presence and applying conscious effort. Articulating why a decision is being made or explicitly asking if a candidate’s qualifications would be sufficient in a candidate of another demographic can greatly reduce the impact of implicit bias on minority opportunity.

Conscious effort can mitigate the impact of implicit bias. Without this effort, the bar is higher for the minority.

Stereotype Threat

People are often afraid of confirming the negative stereotypes of their demographic group. This results in emotional stress, but also in judging their own work too harshly, in hesitation to ask for help, and other activities that hobble their own chances of success.

Prescriptive Stereotypes

Among the most pernicious stereotypes are those that state how members of groups ought to behave rather than simply describing how they are. The exact same behavior in a male can be seen as confident and in a woman as abrasive because culturally we expect women will behave more kindly then men. I have yet to encounter any solution to prescriptive stereotypes. People don’t like people to break the behavioral mold culture has built them.

Benefits of Diversity

If the moral imperative of equal opportunity for all does not resonate in your soul, you may be thinking at this point “‍He’s described challenges minorities face, but why should I invest any effort in fixing them? Doesn’t the world work just fine the way it is?‍”

Sure it works OK, but not as well as it could.

Simply playing the numbers game, if you can pull from the entire population instead of only a part of it then you can find a larger number of truly brilliant people to work with. But this is a long-term answer that deals with educational policies and cultural direction more than it does day-to-day decision making.

There are immediate business reasons to work for diversity. Conceptually, diverse perspectives can create a broader pool of solutions to real problems and a broader range of considerations in prediction. Observationally, organizations that have unusually diverse governing boards outperform others financially. Experimentally, results are starting to indicate that group intelligence is not maximized by the currently-predominant white male team model.

In my opinion, the research is reasonable but not yet definitive on this point. We’ve got the high-level models and the low-level statistics but we have not, to my knowledge, joined the two up. Still, most indicators seem to point to diversity being a current and future economic asset.

In my previous post I discussed the flip side of my love/hate relationship with diversity initiatives: why they are troubling to me and the valid arguments I’ve heard against them. In the future I’ll post some more concrete discussions of diversity issues.

Looking for comments…

Loading user comment form…