© 19 Sep 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
other posts


Diversity and what it’s lacking.


Growing up, “‍diversity‍” was something I was more inclined to mock than praise. Today I participate in a variety of programs whose objective is diversity. The odd thing is, my feelings on the subject haven’t changed.

One-Way Tolerance

A week ago Dallin Oaks quoted an earlier statement by Boyd Packer, “‍Tolerance is often demanded but seldom returned. Beware of the word ‘‍tolerance‍’. It is a very unstable virtue.‍” This principal, I think, is the underlying concern I have with the word Diversity.

Often when I visit with proponents of diversity I find they make two main assertions:

  1. the less-represented are just as good at everything as are the more-represented, and
  2. the less-represented bring a unique perspective and aptitude that will improve the situation.

When you combine these two assertions you end up with a disturbing claim: members of the minority are better than members of the majority. They lack nothing and add something. We have a word for this sort of attitude: bigotry. It is the “‍demanded but not returned‍” kind of tolerance.

Despite this similarity to bigotry, I think most proponents of diversity I know are not, in fact, bigoted people. They arrive at the semblance of bigotry via a surprisingly slippery slope. I’ll characterize that slope as a conversation.

Opponent: “‍They’re under-represented because they aren’t good at the job. If they were good at it we’d hire them.‍”

Proponent: “‍They’re every bit as capable as the over-represented group. Saying otherwise is an unfair stereotype.‍”

Opponent: “‍If they’re just as good as anyone else, why should I care if I hire them or someone else?‍”

Proponent: “‍They bring a unique outlook and ability that can help you out!‍”

And thus we find ourselves in the better-in-every-way stance that makes the proponent of diversity look like a bigot or a hypocrite.



Over generalizing, no two people will perform the same task the same way. A slum lord who rose from poverty is a different kind of beast than a slum lord who descended from affluence. Anyone who claims that background, ethnicity, gender, age, etc., make no difference at all is either talking about such a simple task we don’t care or is ignoring the way the world works.

That said, the net impact of macro-scale nature and nurture does not significantly skew most peoples’ suitability to most jobs. This is not universal: put a male and female in a boxing ring and, on average, the male is much more likely to win. That is not to say that any male will beat any female, but there is a population-level advantage. But as far as we can tell, these genuine biases are relatively rare: electricians and nurses of both genders seems to do just as well.

But “‍doing just as well‍” does not (usually) mean “‍doing just the same.‍” Someone raised with lots of money is likely to run business meetings with a different style than someone raised in a ghetto. And this can be both a blessing and a curse. The curse lies in the extra mental and emotional effort required to understand what significantly different people mean. The blessing lies in the breadth of perspective and experience on which a more diverse group may draw.

Life is easier when people are homogeneous, but heterogeneity brings greater flexibility and power.

Rough Edges and Cogs

I meet very few bigots on either side of most issues. I know they exist, but in my circles they are pretty rare. But I do find a lot of frustration as two groups fail to communicate, hearing the other’s valid concerns as antagonism.

The old guard want the diversity people to recognize that the culture in which events take place is important and cannot be lightly ignored or replaced. Saying “‍that’s offensive‍” doesn’t provide a replacement, nor does it magically change decades of habit and context. Backwards compatibility is a bear.

Proponents of diversity want the established majority to recognize that social difference does not imply incompetence and that a heterogeneous group can bring added insight and power. By changing a culture to encourage and welcome a more diverse group, a greater spread of outlooks can be leveraged to solve problems in new and better ways.

The real disagreement is that some of the rough edges that proponents of diversity want to smooth off to make a more welcoming environment for other peoples are, in the eyes of the practitioners, not rough edges at all but rather important cogs that keep the gears moving.

I personally find myself often siding with the diversity camp: the utility available in attracting a more heterogeneous population into computing (as the field with which I have the most contact) appears, to me, to far outweigh the cost of smoothing out some rough edges and replacing some of the thornier cogs. Yet I pray that I never lose sight of the fact that there is a cost, that diversity is a trade-off—one worth making, I believe, but not without its costs.

Looking for comments…

Loading user comment form…