Why Workplace Diversity Matters

Workplace diversity is a wonderful thing — but not for the reasons you may think. From the perspective of the applicant, an absence of diversity is discriminatory. But from the perspective of the business, the reasoning is not nearly as clear. Indeed I think the most common justification of workplace diversity is deeply flawed. I call it the “unique perspective” argument.

This line of thought is often stated as a platitude, such as “everyone has something to contribute” or “the best ideas can come from anywhere”. The implication is that a group of straight white men will always lack some kind of metaphorical puzzle piece, one that can only be obtained from black women or Asian transfolk. Members of those demographics must therefore think differently by virtue of their diverse bodies or experiences.

There are a few places where this makes sense. A handicapped person will probably be better at architecting wheelchair-friendly spaces, and a community organizer should be of the neighborhood’s predominant race. I’d expect an LGBT support organization or a religious outreach group to employ members of their communities. These are jobs where the nature of the work is deeply connected with personal identity, where a person’s background affects how the work is done.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the musicians in an orchestra. The work of playing an instrument is completely independent of who is playing it; there are no unique perspectives. Although no instrument requires a minority, music should welcome them into a perfect meritocracy, at least in theory. In practice, women have only recently made significant inroads into the concert hall with the help of blind auditions. (As in, the candidate and music director are separated by screen that is opaque, but not soundproof.) Achieving diversity in music has required veiling, not celebrating, demographic identities.

But for knowledge work — programming, business, academia, journalism — the pro-diversity movement seems to subscribe to both mutually-exclusive theories. We are asked to review resumés without names, and to create metrics for performance on coding questions before asking them. But, we are also told that diverse teams perform better, that new ideas come from diverse viewpoints. How does one resolve this paradox?

First, I will dispatch the unique perspective argument, which I find absurd for a number of reasons. Are there really thoughts that a white or straight person can’t think? What are they? Or can you not say because then I could think them? And if you can’t articulate these thoughts, how can you act on them to produce business value?

Furthermore, if we say “black women bring a unique perspective to coding”, it seems to follow that we must consider whether Jews bring a unique perspective to accounting, or women bring a unique perspective to food preparation (you know, in the kitchen). Do we need black male physical therapists and gay counselors? Are Hispanics uniquely suited to janitorial and construction jobs? As soon as you try to specify what a unique perspective actually is, you fall prey to stereotypes and create a caste system drawn from the pages of Brave New World. A desire for diversity mutates into demographic pigeonholes, and the argument implodes.

Another way in which this line of thinking is problematic is articulated by Nicole Sanchez, VP of Social Impact at GitHub:

As our demographic characteristics have an extraordinary impact on the shape of our lives including our overall life expectancy, expanding diversity across the [demographic] axes listed above will likely yield a wider range of diversity of thought.

Race is linked to lifespan, but that is an injustice to be righted, not a useful proxy for diversity of thought! One could conclude from this argument that we should continue to oppress minorities so that they live shorter lives and therefore think differently about code. If your business needs the input of someone who’s overcome injustice, then that implies that we should continue marginalizing people. Um, what?

So, I think that the unique perspective argument is doomed, reductio ad absurdum. The good news is that it’s not the only argument for workplace diversity.

It seems reasonable that cognitive ability would be distributed on a bell curve. But instead of assuming each demographic group brings something new to the table, let’s assume sameness — that ability is not influenced by race or gender. So if you want to hire on the right 15% of the bell curve, you’d expect a mix of people that matches the population at large. If you don’t include minorities, you’re artificially shrinking the talent pool, and thereby hurting your business.

This view of diversity doesn’t lead us to contradiction, but I still find it unsettling. We’ve taken the qualitative, multidimensional, yet indefinite nature of knowledge work and condensed it down to one numerical axis. Furthermore, the message is no longer “we want black women because they are unique and valuable,” but rather, “we want black women because a fraction of them will be better than some of the white men we’d have to hire instead”.

From this perspective, diversity isn’t just about cataloging the differences of the human body. It’s also about recognizing the sameness of the human mind.

For a while, this was where my thoughts on the matter ended. But it turns out there’s a third, quite satisfactory perspective. Namely, diversity inspires inspiration. This intermediate inspiration is neither as nebulous as a unique perspective nor as regimented as hedging a statistical bet. It offers us a causal mechanism for how diversity improves productivity, and it dispenses with the assumption that the work environment does not affect the workers.

Inclusion allows everyone to bring their whole self to work, to not be hiding their identity or trying to be agreeable. This cognitive energy not spent on assimilation can be funneled into doing better work. Inclusive environments allow coworkers to trust each other and build teams. A person who is accepted for who they are is more likely to present ideas and engage in analysis of tradeoffs.

But it’s not just minorities that benefit. Instead of insisting that I have some fixed and incomplete set of ideas of the straight-white-man variety, this perspective holds that even I will behave differently in a culture that is inclusive and accepting.

Thanks for reading! Did I miss an important fact, subtle distinction, or tricky deduction? Then write a response and let me know.

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