I have been thinking about diversity a good deal lately. In fact, at work, I just attended the first meeting of a group to support and promote women in the workplace. I fully support the effort, but it got me thinking… what is the deeper issue here?
At my current employer, we’re trying to build airplanes. That requires considerable diversity: most especially in talent and experience. We need aerodynamicists, structural analysts, inlet designers, electrical engineers, program managers… on and on. We also need people at all levels of experience in their professions. But do we need people with blue eyes? Honestly… does eye color matter when building an airplane? Couldn’t we build a plane without anyone who has blue eyes? What about people with freckles? Do we actually need people to have uteruses? What about dark skin? Do we really need to have a man on staff who’s attracted to other men?
For those first few categories, I can hear you thinking… “Well, I guess not… but, what difference does it make?” But, by the end of that list, I would hope that you were starting to get offended. I think this is the really important point. While it’s likely that you could build an airplane without people having a certain eye color, complexion, gender, race, or sexuality, we should still feel outraged to exclude people based on those traits.
I think the deeper issue here is one of justice. When trying to assemble a group of people for whatever purpose, there are traits which matter and traits which don’t: based upon the purpose at hand. It is manifestly unjust, therefore, to exclude someone based on inessential traits: most especially when they do have the traits necessary for the endeavor.
I think focusing on diversity of race, gender, etc. instead of justice is a trap which bites in three ways.
First, it’s a trap for the company. Imagine a field where 80% of its members are men, and 20% women. Assuming an even distribution of talent, if you were trying to hire the top 10 people in the field, you’d get 8 men, and 2 women. However, if you are obliged to hire 50/50, you’d get 5 men and 2 women from the group of the 10 best people in the field, and then have to hire 3 more women who were not in the top 10. This is clearly not the best outcome for the company.
Second, it’s a trap for the people being hired. First, there are the 3 men who were excluded. It’s unfair, and we definitely sympathize with them. However, it’s the women who actually face the nastier part of the trap. First, the women who were hired won’t know whether they were hired for their talent, or to fill a quota. This is demoralizing all on its own. Even worse, no one else in the company will know either. One can easily imagine the nasty bias and mistreatment which will ensue from people who were already skeptical. With this combination of factors, a reasonable person would feel extremely unwelcome and move along rather quickly.
Finally, it’s a trap for everyone trying to correct the problem. My framing the situation as one group oppressing the other, it creates a powerful “us vs. them” mentality which is hard to overcome. People in the minority group are tempted to identify all people in the majority group as oppressors. Allies in the majority group feel unfairly accused, and are less likely to want to remain allies. Progress in correcting the situation is impeded to no one’s benefit.
I think the better approach is to focus on eliminating injustice: for any group which experiences it, and in whatever form it takes.
This approach requires and supports a great many of the actions one would take with a pro-diversity agenda. Unbalanced representation of women speakers in a conference you’re planning? It is just and pro-diversity to look a little harder to find more qualified speakers who happen to be female. Engineering staff looking a little too white? It is both just and pro-diversity to set up a recruiting trip to universities whose color balance isn’t so pale to hire talented newcomers who might face prejudice elsewhere. Notice though, that it is only just in that you’re selecting people who are qualified through their skills, talents, and accomplishments: not because of some inessential trait. The difference is that you’re putting in the extra effort required to avoid and/or unwind unjust biases against those people to promote justice towards them.
Paradoxically, I think this approach is also more inclusive. Promoting justice is a cause which anyone can support, and for any other person. Instead of creating innumerable “us vs. them” pairings, holding justice as the primary creates only one: those in favor of justice vs those who are not.