The Homogeneity of Diversity

By on Feb 9, 2012 in Despair

When I was working on my undergraduate degree in California, identifying and rooting out sexism in our cultural institutions was all the rage. I was repeatedly taught that it was sexist to believe that women were significantly different than men in any way other than, what one of my professors liked to call, “the plumbing.”

I remember at least one heated classroom discussion about whether it was appropriate for men to engage in mundane chivalrous behavior like opening a door for a women, giving up their seat to a woman on a crowded bus, or allowing them to leave an elevator first.

One day I reached the classroom just as one of my feminist classmates approached from the opposite direction. Mindlessly, I opened the door to allow her to enter first. After a few seconds I realized she wasn’t moving. I made eye contact and saw that she was standing there scowling at me. “You go first,” she said.  I did. And then I went and sat in the seat where she normally sat. She scowled again  (An activity for which her visage seemed perfectly suited.). I can’t say that event was particularly meaningful, but was illustrative of the drumbeat of indoctrination that was part of the spirit of the age.

The same was true of racial differences. The dominant theme of cultural conversation about race was Martin Luther King’s desire that his children would live in a nation where they would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

All of that changed in the 1990’s and the rise of the diversity movement. I remember going to an academic conference where I attended a panel on “feminist epistemologies.” One of the panelists tried to convince those of us in the audience that feminist epistemologies were better because they were not constrained by scientific rationality. She explained that because traditional scientific methods were developed by privileged western white men, science was inherently androgenic. As such, the scientific method and the reasoning that followed naturally excluded anyone who was not privileged, western, white, & male. Using a logical fallacy to undermine the value of scientific rationality struck me as irrational. But given my academic training, I knew that to believe that would make me a sexist. So instead, I concluded she simply had a delusional disorder. Fortunately, she was pursuing a career in academia so I knew she’d be safe.

This background may be why the Wall Street Journal article Firms Hail New Chiefs (of Diversity) caught my attention. The article notes that diversity officers are rising in the corporate hierarchy, and in many cases, are given C-Level stature and authority. The Journal notes that Chief Diversity Officers are “tasked with creating an environment where women and minorities can flourish.” That makes sense. But then the article goes on to say “Having a diverse work force no doubt helps a company’s image, and some say it can also impact the bottom line by reducing employee turnover, boosting innovation and attracting new business.”  How, I wondered, does diversity do this?

Clearly, retention programs can reduce turnover, and if the costs to retain diversity targets is lower than the cost to recruit them, it’s easy to see how diversity programs contribute to the bottom line. But that’s true for anybody, not just diversity targets. The other two benefits are more opaque. How does diversity boost innovation and attract new business?  The article provides the following example:

Other firms look to diversity to help drive innovation. Heating and ventilation equipment maker Ingersoll Rand PLC created a head of diversity role earlier this year to help cultivate more minority leaders within the organization, with the hope that their ideas would spur growth in foreign markets.

CDO Neddy Perez is preparing to launch employee networking groups for women, African-Americans and veterans in North America. In Europe, she is rolling out a one-year leadership training program for 12 handpicked female employees.

The typical diversity argument for attracting new business is that certain groups of people know how to attract others like them: women are better able to develop products for women; hispanics have insight into opening latin markets; asians have insights into asian markets, etc. But in this case that rationale makes no sense. Ingersoll-Rand makes tools, air conditioners, air compressors, and various industrial technologies: i.e. items typically purchased and used by men. But in her desire to drive “innovation” in Europe, the one group she has excluded from her diversity program is men of european descent. The Journal continues, “Ms. Perez says she occasionally comes across skeptics, but “there’s always going to be a nonbeliever in the audience.”

Count me as a nonbeliever.

The article also references a report on the changing role of the CDO by the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. That report makes the following claim:

Diversity is no longer merely an issue of equity in hiring but of strategy in the marketplace. Companies that are unable to communicate with or win over diverse markets domestically and globally will see their market share erode and their financial performance suffer. Leading companies that understand these dynamics have accordingly evolved the role of diversity officer from its earlier incarnations in equal opportunity and compliance to that of a change agent. In this demanding new role, the diversity officer must be able to help guide the company through major cultural transformation in order to harness the business value of diversity as a core competence of the company.

It’s obvious that if a company can’t win global or domestic markets it’s market share will erode. But referring to markets as “diverse” in this context is linguistic subterfuge unless a company sells products or services typically sold to a narrow demographic that maps to the company’s diversity targets.

The report continues:

However, as leading companies realized the business relevancy of diversity and inclusion, their stance gradually changed. Those who early on saw the demographic writing on the wall understood that their workforce should look like their customer base, not only out of fairness but because they believed that from a brand perspective such policies might improve business results. Eventually, some began to see that diversity wasn’t simply a numbers game but a matter of bringing diverse ideas and perspectives into the company in such areas as marketing, product development, and the like. Today, the leaders in diversity have taken it several steps further. They value diversity of perspectives and know how to put it to work in a business context. But they also know that to secure long-term advantage from diversity they must create a corporate culture where diversity is central to strategy as well as to operations.

As with the previous paragraph, this one also contains a rhetorical slight of hand. Demographic diversity is not required for “bringing diverse ideas and perspectives into the company.” In fact, research on group decision making has shown that in some cases, demographic diversity reduces the sharing of diverse ideas because group members focus too much attention on their social differences and devote less attention to the task at hand. Furthermore, the assumption that demographic diversity naturally entails a “diversity of perspectives” is itself little more than a stereotype.

Though the business value of diversity is difficult to quantify, I don’t think it needs to be. There’s no reason for these executives to resort to shoddy thinking and weak arguments to justify their position. Greater inclusiveness is a worthy goal if for no other reason than that everybody deserves an equal chance to prove their incompetence.

Share the Despair™