There are merits to diversity beyond productivity

2016/09/14

I just finished a two-year tenure as diversity officer for the board that represents graduate students in my PhD department. In talking about diversity in a results-driven engineering/start-up world, I have found a focus on one merit of diversity. I lament the diversion from the its other merits.

The merit of diversity I hear most often touted is related to productivity. The logic comes in two strains:

  1. Diversity in a broad sense (e.g., ethnic, religious, sexual orientation) leads to intellectual diversity, which leads to greater innovation, which leads to more profits.

  2. Diversity in a broad sense leads to a business that can better serve and satisfy a diverse client base, which leads to more profits.

Both strains are present in this Forbes article, “Reaping The Benefits Of Diversity For Modern Business Innovation”.

I think this conception of diversity is popular for a few reasons. First, it is practical. It says that diversity isn’t some mystical thing you should do “just because”. Instead, diversity is a money-making venture. Second, it makes diversity sound easy. It sidesteps the old question about how you make an organization more diverse, often couched as a disagreeable question of weighing diversity against merit in an application or hiring procedure, by simply merging diversity and merit.

And I crescendo to the final point, which is that this conception makes diversity limited and quantifiable. You know how much diversity is enough: it’s the amount that maximizes your profit or innovation. You don’t need to weigh diversity against money-making merit because diversity is a money-making merit. It’s now a simple economic decision: how much money-making merit comes from, say, having a certain skin color versus, say, having a certain academic credential?

I think this is a limited view. I’m sure someone else has written more wisely about this, but I want to add what I think are the two other important merits of diversity.

First, there is fairness. The Forbes article interviewee credits Neil Lenane with saying, “If you do not _in_tentionally _in_clude, you _un_intentionally _ex_clude." This hits right at what I call fairness: if you are not actively thinking about and striving for diversity, not going beyond how much diversity you think is good, then you are probably falling short, that is, unintentionally and unfairly excluding people because they do not fit a mold born of unconscious prejudice.

Second, there is display. By this I mean that having a diverse group shows young people–whether they are in the minority or majority, whether they are looking at a field where they are traditionally underrepresented or traditionally overrepresented–that there can (and maybe should) be greater equality.

I’ll give two examples of these three merits of diversity: productivity, fairness, and display. I just finished a PhD program, so I’ll use that as an example. I think the argument that having a diverse pool of PhD students or faculty is going to increase productivity (i.e., increase the collective publication rate or grant size) is dubious. (I do think it’s very possible that a more diverse student or faculty population could change the kind of productivity. People solve the problems that they know, so if you have a department of mostly upper-middle class white people, you are probably going to spend a disproportionate amount of time solving problems faced by upper-middle class white people.)

In contrast, fairness is front and center, and it doesn’t depend on whether taking on another student of color makes the department more productive or not; it is simply good to admit those people who are qualified.

For a PhD program, however, I think the most important merit is display. It’s easy to grow up thinking that certain kinds of people can or can’t (or should or shouldn’t) be scientists because the current pool of scientists looks one way or another.

This bring me to my second example: Obama. There was a lot of discussion about what having a black president meant for racism in America. I think it’s tough to talk about productivity: was Obama a better president than his imaginary white counterpart because of his color? That’s an impossible question for multiple reasons. It’s also tricky to talk about fairness for presidents. The presidency is not doled out by a group in charge; the president is elected by a mass of people. (OK, there is a cabal of party bigwigs, donors, and media moguls who make things happen, but they are enough that I will call them a mass.)

But as for display, oh boy. It’s difficult for me, being white, to understand what it would feel like to see that the most powerful person in the world could be the same color as me. I think this was the most profound effect.