Friday, December 12, 2014

More on the Purpose of Diversity

There are several arguments for diversity, and these arguments may lead to different flavours or styles of diversity. I use the term imaginary diversity for an appearance or image of diversity that may not reveal the underlying reality. And I use the term symbolic diversity for a formal procedural diversity, often found in bureaucratic organizations, which may also be a long way from real diversity.


One argument for diversity is based on justice, and the visibility of justice. When we see an organization with a largely homogeneous workforce, we may suspect that there is some discrimination going on. Nowadays, this kind of discrimination is unlikely to be deliberate policy, but can be caused in various ways:

  • the managers feel more comfortable recruiting people like themselves
  • the working practices favour people of a particular type - for example, working hours that are not compatible with childcare
  • an expectation of a particular career path - for example, entry via unpaid internships or expensive qualifications 

However, having an appearance of diversity doesn't prove the lack of discrimination. A company may employ lots of women, but few with small children, and none in senior positions. And until someone leaks the salary data on the internet, the female employees may not know if they are paid the same as male employees doing equivalent jobs.

Another argument for diversity is based on organizational intelligence. Similar people see the world in similar ways, with similar assumptions and blind spots.

Race and gender are generally more visible than other potential discriminatory factors, such as class, educational background, sexual orientation and religious affiliation.

The problem with imaginary diversity is that it privileges visible signs of difference over other, perhaps equally important kinds of difference. We don't achieve real diversity in politics merely by mixing male, female, white and ethnic, especially if the politicians (and the journalists interviewing them) all studied the same degrees at the same universities. Politicians such as Barack Obama (black male, Harvard), Hillary Clinton (white female, Yale), Ed Miliband (Jewish male, Oxford) and Diane Abbott (black female, Cambridge) have a lot of things in common: similarity here is not just a function of race and gender.

The problem with symbolic diversity is that it nominates a few kinds of difference for special treatment, while ignoring other forms. Suddenly everyone gets worked up about age discrimination or postcode discrimination or whatever, and we have an official policy and procedure about that, while other forms of discrimination are permitted or even encouraged.


Related Blogs

Relationships built on self-interest (January 2009)
What is the Purpose of Diversity? (January 2010)
Organizational Intelligence and Gender (October 2010)
Delusion and Diversity (October 2010)

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