In January President Joe Biden announced that he would be nominating a black woman to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. When I initially heard that, I thought he was starting a game of ‘who am I?’ and was listening eagerly for the next clue, but it soon became apparent that he hadn’t actually selected any specific black woman yet. He just wanted to tell us that he had come up with two pre-requisites for the role – skin colour and gender.
Today, hearing such words from the leader of the free world is not surprising to anyone. But taken at face value, it should be. In selecting someone to fill one of the most important roles in the country, which the then unidentified black woman may fill for the rest of her life, he decided to eliminate the majority of potential candidates on the basis of something other than merit. That is, on the basis of diversity.
Now, the court already has a black justice and it already has several female justices but what it lacks is any female black justices. So apparently this is “long overdue”. And hey, he recently used the exact same process to select the most unimpressive and unpopular Vice President imaginable, so why stop now?
All the eliminated candidates (every qualified white women, black man, and white man) are expected to take this in stride and not to feel like the president is being racist or sexist towards them.
Treating diversity as a value, and using it to virtue signal like this, has become so common, that the President isn’t expected to provide any better argument in its defence than “it’s long overdue”. But is it “due” at all? Is it reasonable to value diversity?
Diversity the fact and diversity the value
Diversity and equality are opposite terms. Either two things are different (diverse) or the same (equal). It’s intriguing, then, that both ideas are so often advocated side by side, even in the same sentence.
And yet, it also makes sense. Both diversity and equality are real, they just relate to different characteristics.
All humans are, in some senses, equal. We have the same basic design, the same needs, the same ancestors. We are all human, and, whether we can explain it or not, we all know that being human puts us in a common moral category. We all have the same responsibilities under the law, which provides us with the same protections. Equality is a fact.
At the same time, humans are diverse; we come in different shapes and sizes, we have different characteristics, different ethnicities, different languages, different upbringing, different genders, different personalities, different beliefs.
So diversity is also a fact, and is easy to understand as a fact. It is much harder, however, to understand Diversity as a value.
Advocates of DEI – the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion agenda – will say, “I value diversity”, and, “I think diversity is important”. What do they mean? Is it that they like diversity? That they believe it makes the world a better place? I can agree with that; the world would be more boring if more people were more uniform.
Yet if that was all they meant by “diversity”, it would elicit little response; there’s nothing I need to do in support of that value.
When DEI advocates speak of diversity-the-value, they mean something more. They mean that any diversity that exists globally, ought to exist locally also. For example, “50% of all people are women, therefor 50% of engineers should be women”. Or “15% of the country have black skin, therefore at least 15% of actors should have black skin” (even when its anachronistic, like in a remake of Pride and Prejudice).
As with all misguided ideologies, it’s the grains of truth that makes the lie palatable. There are two grains of truth that need to be addressed.
Grain of truth #1 – Diversity can be useful
The first is this: that diversity can indeed be valuable. Diversity can even be useful.
Consider – if ten people are brainstorming in a team, and they are all identical in all their thoughts and knowledge, then they will all come up with the same idea at the same time. In which case, what is the point of having ten of them? You may as well have only one person. Edward de Bono invented the famous ‘six thinking hats’ method for brainstorming. It does not work if everyone puts on the same thinking hat. It is only due to the differences between us that we derive benefits from working together.
In the context of ‘brainstorming’, then, diversity is likely to be valuable. However, it also may not be. What if only one person in the group has the relevant knowledge to come up with a good idea? In that case, were the other nine people necessary? Nine ignorant people might get in the way. What if there was so much racial diversity that no two people in the group spoke the same language? The group wouldn’t achieve anything!
Nevertheless, diversity can have value. And if you are opposed to the DEI agenda, like I am, that doesn’t require you to go “all the way” in the other direction and become a staunch proponent of individualism and meritocracy. There can be such a thing as “group merit”, and employers may be sensible trying to hire people who add diversity to their existing team; for instance, in my experience a work environment usually is better when there is gender diversity.
We can clarify the whole issue, however, if we define diversity more carefully, and distinguish between functional and non-functional characteristics. Some differences matter because they relate to the outcomes that we care about, they are ‘functional’. Others are not relevant to outcomes, they are ‘non-functional’.
Consider, for example, an orchestra. There’s no reason to think that an orchestra will sound any better if more of the players have blue eyes. Eye colour is a non-functional characteristic. However, the ability to see is a functional characteristic, because if a musician can’t see the conductor, it would affect the outcome. So we might expect an orchestra to have a representative sample of blue-eyed musicians, but probably not a representative sample of blind musicians (unless someone comes up with a workaround).
Unfortunately, most proponents of diversity don’t seem interested in discussing functional and non-functional characteristics. Instead, diversity has been presented as a kind of mystical phenomenon. You diverse things up and they’ll just… get better. “Don’t you think bridges would be designed better if there were more female architects?” they say. What? Why would they?
Claims about the financial and performative benefits of diversity come across as suspiciously convenient justifications for the idea, rather than reason or evidence-based arguments. They’re valid in some limited range of contexts, and just a bit silly in others. Diversity isn’t some magical thing that always produces good outcomes.
Many of the more serious writers about diversity and its impact on business are very conscious of this. If you filter out the HR influencers who are incapable of communicating in anything other than aphorisms, you hear things like this from the Harvard Business Review:
“These rallying cries for more diversity in companies… have three things in common: All articulate a business case for hiring more women or people of colour; all demonstrate good intentions; and none of the claims is actually supported by robust research findings…”
And further along in the article:
“…The research touting the link [between board gender diversity and performance] was conducted by consulting firms and financial institutions and fails to pass muster when subjected to scholarly scrutiny. Meta-analyses of rigorous, peer-reviewed studies found no significant relationships—causal or otherwise.”
The authors of that specific article are actually favourable to diversity, but they state that it has to be harnessed effectively or it won’t really make a difference. When you read into that further, they are really saying what I said above—that you need to consider the functional aspects of diversity in order to use it, and even have an awareness of potential dysfunctional characteristics. Communication barriers due to language diversity are dysfunctional. Creating dissatisfaction among employees when you promote someone for a reason other than merit – is dysfunctional.
Grain of truth #2 – discrimination can play a role
You will observe that, apart from a few reluctant voices of reason, most advocates of diversity adhere to it like a sacred cow. Whether it works or not isn’t really the point; they support diversity “on ethical grounds”. But what on earth is this underlying ethic?
Well, a key pillar of diversity-the-value, is that it permits only one explanation for an absence of diversity. If a certain environment is not diverse, it must be the result of… wait for it… bigotry and prejudice.
Why are there not more female CEOs? It must be discrimination. Why are there not more aboriginal journalists? It must be discrimination. Why do books not have more transsexual protagonists? It must be discrimination.
Here, actually, is the second ‘grain of truth’ in diversity. There may well be discrimination. I’ve witnessed it; you probably have, too. I know of a young woman who wanted to study engineering and was told (by her father) that she couldn’t, because she was a woman. That’s probably one of the most extreme examples I’ve witnessed. Such discrimination is actually rare today, though it is well known that discrimination like that was more common about forty-plus years ago due to cultural norms that we have, by and large, discarded.
The problem with this grain of truth is that there are many, many factors other than discrimination that can also cause a lack of diversity. Factors like… historical inequalities, that can’t just change overnight. Factors that affect exposure to opportunities – you have to know an opportunity exists before you can take it. Factors like marketability. Most fictional protagonists are straight – why? Because if ninety-something per cent of the audience is straight, an author could make at least 10 times as much money catering to them rather than any other group.
Factors like availability of ‘diverse’ personnel. In every speech I’ve listened to about ‘attracting more women to work in energy and mining’, no-one has once said which female-dominated industry they plan to steal them from, nor what that industry should then do to attract more men.
There are also factors that get called discrimination, but are actually products of a lack of diversity, not causes. It can be difficult working in a field where you are a minority. If a woman chooses a workplace that has ten times as many men as women in it… then she’s likely to feel a bit outnumbered. That may be difficult to cope with! I know if I walk into a room with only women in it, I feel a bit awkward, too. But I don’t blame the women for outnumbering me! My discomfit is not from any discrimination or “micro-aggressions”. Being outnumbered is literally what it means to be a minority.
Diversity’s big problem – the differences are real
An interesting article in Forbes by Paolo Gaudiano argued, “companies should stop focusing on diversity”. Not because the author doesn’t think diversity is valuable, but he suggests diversity should naturally occur as an outcome of good management, rather than be treated as an input. This may be a better position than most DEI advocates take, but it is still flawed – why would diversity always form in an ideal work environment? The ideal cricket team doesn’t have age diversity, for instance – cricketers have to retire when they get old. Because age is a functional characteristic for a cricketer.
After considering all the aforementioned factors that can affect diversity, this one is the big deal – the real problem for diversity… is functional characteristics.
Why are there more men in construction? Because they’re stronger. Why do men take less parental leave? At the least, because they can’t breastfeed. But it goes deeper…
To the endless frustration of feminists, gender is often a functional characteristic because men and women are, in fact, very different. The differences are not only those obvious, external ones, men and women also have statistically different personalities.
Why are there far less men (a ratio of about 1 to 20 or lower) working in midwifery and childcare?
The word “statistically” is important here. Any description of “what women are like” or “what men are like” is only a statistical statement, because men also vary from other another in personality, just as women vary, one from another. We find as much, if not more, diversity within each gender as between them. Nevertheless, men and women are statistically different and those differences can be functional.
Statistical differences are more visible at the extremes of a distribution than at the average, as is clearly seen every Olympic Games. The differences between men and women are so significant that we have entirely distinct events, otherwise there would not be any female competitors at all in most events. But racial differences are amplified to become visible at the Olympics also. You could not claim that all Jamaicans run faster than all Englishmen and if you picked two at random, you may not be able to predict the winner. And yet if you put the fastest Jamaicans in a race against the fastest Englishmen, they’ll win handily every time. And the best Ethiopian marathon runners will win. And the best Eastern European weightlifters. Personally, I never expect to see any white man get a medal in running ever again, though we’ll keep winning in swimming due to statistically better buoyancy. None of these facts are racist – these functional characteristics are, genuinely, correlated with race. We need not be troubled by the lack of diversity on the winners podium; differences are amplified at the extremes. This is diversity-the-fact on display.
But what if I were to say that business CEOs are also exceptional and rare people. They exist at the extremes of statistical personality distributions; they have a rare combination of skills – high energy, LASER focus, industriousness, high stress tolerance, high intellect, decisiveness… I could go on. Guess what? One, at least, of these characteristics is correlated to gender. It’s stress tolerance. On average, women have lower stress tolerance than men (I’m referring to what psychologists call neuroticism, which doesn’t sound flattering, but is more scientifically precise). Even if we remove all discrimination, should we ever expect to see an equal number of male and female CEOs? Maybe. But I doubt it. This is another statistic at the extremes – CEOs are exceptional people regardless of gender, we should not be surprised it the role amplifies statistical differences, just like the Olympic podium does.
Diversity advocates will stick to their guns, of course, and argue that we should restructure the workplace to accommodate feminine personality traits. But why? Where is the “should” coming from in that sentence? Where is the ethic creeping into the discussion? And in practical terms, how could you possibly make the role of running a company with thousands of employees less stressful?
Diversity-the-value has a problem. Consider again the claim that 50% of engineers should be women. If men and women are different, how do we know that the propensity to choose engineering isn’t one of their differences? But if men and women are not different, then how can we claim that gender diversity has any benefit? Either differences are allowed to be functional, or they are not.
Diversity-the-value doesn’t actually celebrate difference. Instead it selectively denies that difference can exist. There’s no appeal to evidence or reason to identify what differences may or may not be functional and when. Instead, whether a difference is acknowledged or ignored seems to depend on whether it results in equal outcomes or not.
Diversity is a Trojan horse
What this reveals is that diversity-the-value isn’t really about diversity at all. It’s a Trojan horse. It’s actually about equity. ‘Valuing diversity’ really means ‘expecting equity’ between diverse groups. And it is justified by claiming that any inequity must be the result of discrimination, rather than a result of the difference that defines the diversity in the first place.
How else can we explain that no-one cares whether more women work on construction sites, but everyone wants more women on executive boards? Conversation about diversity always winds its way to talking about ‘leadership positions’. Why? Because board-members and leaders have power, and they get paid more.
To summarise – there are some true, valid points within the diversity message. Diversity in a workplace can lead to better outcomes. Wrongful discrimination and bigotry are bad and we should combat them where we can. But we should not always interpret lack of diversity by assuming that it results from discrimination and bigotry; there are many other possible causes.
We should also not treat lack of diversity as a problem. If we find discrimination we should remove it. If we lack useful diversity of some functional characteristic, then we should seek to find it. If we lack diversity because of some functional characteristic, then we should accept it. If the diversity we lack is non-functional, and there is no discrimination in sight, we can ignore it.
The DEI version of ‘diversity’, insists that global diversity should be reflected in every local domain. That is not respecting and valuing diversity, but actually destroying it. It is a hypocritical nod to diversity that actually denies any underlying difference. It is a Trojan horse to sneak in a completely different value – equity.
And that is a topic for another article…
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Nick Kastelein is a South Australian writer. He writes about politics, philosophy and current events, with an emphasis on applying a Christian worldview, and finding the simplest, truest perspective. You can find more of his past writing at NPKastelein.com.
Nick is also a professional mechanical engineer with extensive experience in the energy sector, and especially in design of natural gas pipelines. He is a contributor to Australian Standard AS/NZS 2885.1, and lead author of Fracture Control – A code of practice for the Australian pipeline industry.