Toward a Deeper Discussion about Diversity

Diversity is complex—much more so than our popular treatment of the subject suggests. Shallow thinking about diversity lends itself to a number of fallacies. If we desire a fruitful conversation about diversity, we first need to recognize—and reckon with—this complexity.

In his Public Discourse essay “Defining Diversity,” Michael Bradley sheds much-needed light on one of the most celebrated values of our time. He defines “diversity” as “a description of a state of affairs denoting a variety that is in itself morally neutral.”

Despite its inherently neutral status, diversity has many champions—in the academy, in business, even in government—who routinely sing its praises. Bradley offers one such example from Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, who called diversity a “moral and intellectual necessity” and claimed that “a fully diverse community . . . is a richer community for learning, discussion, and inquiry.” Though Bradley assigns a “qualified” value to diversity, he argues that unqualified support for diversity is misplaced. Contrary to what we might infer from statements like Rev. Jenkins’s, diversity, Bradley says, is “neither a virtue, nor a basic good, nor even a generally positive descriptor.” As Bradley puts it:

“diversity” as a  descriptor of any community is devoid of positive meaning unless and until one carefully clarifies what is diverse, and why being diverse in that respect promotes the community’s holistic good.

With Bradley’s argument as my foundation, I want to deepen the analysis of diversity, to further guide our thinking and discussions about this subject. In particular, I will consider the complexity of diversity, potential fallacies in our thinking about diversity, and some unintended consequences of our emphasis on the subject.

The Complexity of Diversity

Statements like “diversity is good” and “we need more diversity” overlook an important fact: diversity is complex. This complexity makes itself known in at least five significant ways.

First, just as there are endless ways of classifying things, so too there are endless kinds of diversity. Beliefs, habits, education, language, class, wealth, sex, age, ethnicity, values—these are just some of the numerous ways in which a group of people might be diverse. Not all of these categories hold equal significance; indeed, their value varies based on situation. Even once we’ve determined the context, however, we can still expect disagreement over which categories matter most.

Second, as the above list demonstrates, not all kinds of diversity are visible. To be sure, some are: sex, ethnicity, age, size, and so on. Yet many are not, and this latter kind may have the greatest effect on the success of an organization. Take “academic specialty,” for example. Thus, although it is understandable to focus attention on visible qualities, we must not overlook the presence—and import—of invisible ones.

Third, appeals to diversity cannot settle moral disputes. (Bradley makes this point, but it bears repeating.) They cannot do so because diversity is descriptive, not prescriptive; it announces what is, not what ought to be. Simply appealing to “diversity” cannot substitute for mature reflection on what is good.

Fourth, we cannot expect an organization to be diverse in every way. In fact, such “total diversity” is impossible. Why? Because organizations form around specific goals and values—they must, if they are to have purpose and to function—and this entails excluding people outside those goals and values. Nor are such exclusions always unjust. The fire chief who refuses to hire an elementary school teacher as a teacher has not committed an injustice; he is simply hiring people for roles that support his organization.

Fifth and finally, diversity is not independently valuable. To put it differently, diversity cannot stand on its own, apart from whatever skills are necessary for a given task. Consider a marketing team that is trying to reach a new demographic. The team leader decides to hire someone from that demographic to offer inside knowledge on the best ways to reach the audience in question. This act adds diversity to the group. Suppose, however, that the person she chooses lacks a background in communication theory and is unfamiliar with the ways his demographic gets information. Would the mere fact that he represents the target audience suffice? No. He first needs the requisite skills and insights; only then might his diversity bear fruit.

These five observations—that there are endless kinds of diversity, that not all of them are visible, that appeals to diversity cannot settle moral disputes, that “total diversity” is impossible, and that diversity cannot substitute for skill—coupled with Bradley’s insights, show the complexity of this subject. We should therefore avoid unqualified appeals to greater diversity.

Potential Fallacies

When talking about diversity, it is easy to fall into many logical fallacies. I will highlight two here.

The first fallacy occurs when we take outward forms of diversity (e.g., skin tone) as a guarantee of inward forms (e.g., beliefs or values). We do this whenever we stereotype. “He’s an old, white guy; he must represent the establishment,” or “She’s a young, black woman; she must be a liberal.” It may be that people with the same outward characteristics tend to believe or value similar things, but this is clearly not always the case.

The second fallacy is exemplified by an article entitled “Diversity: Why We’re Not Nearly There Yet,” by J.T. Childs, Jr., a former IBM vice president and current diversity consultant. In it, Childs suggests that we ought to see people like ourselves in those companies with which we do business. He writes:

I want all of your group to spend their money with [my] clients, and that means that it is important that your people, all people, be able to look into each company and see people like themselves from the mailroom to the boardroom.

Where that look does not yield a clear vision of fairness, you should not spend your money.

But just because we do not “see” a certain kind of diversity in an organization, it is not necessarily true that the organization opposes that form of diversity.

Suppose I surveyed a modest organization—a company of, say, 100 people—and found that it contained only one black person. Based on this fact alone, may I safely conclude that this company opposes racial diversity? Not at all. Suppose it is located in rural, upstate New York, where white people far outnumber other ethnicities. In this case, it is surprising not that the organization had only one black person but that it had any at all. Geography, then, shows the fallacy of attributing the lack of a certain form of diversity to prejudice.

Now, suppose we surveyed a different organization. Rather than 100 people, this one has 2,000. Unlike the other company, this one is located in a metropolis, with a large number of Orthodox Jews. If we discovered that none of the employees subscribed to Orthodox Judaism, could we infer institutional prejudice? Perhaps. Suppose we learned, however, that this company packages and distributes pork products. In that case, we ought to alter our conclusion.

As this example illustrates, sometimes a given lack of diversity reflects no prejudice on the part of employers but rather a choice on the part of would-be employees. Their choice not to join an organization or career field might stem from conflicting beliefs. It might also reflect their desire for a different lifestyle—as with mothers of young children, who might want a flexible job with ready access to home.

Once again, we see the need for a thoughtful engagement with the subject.

Unintended Consequences

I suspect that most advocates for diversity have good intentions. Nevertheless, for all the good that certain diversity initiatives achieve, they can also have unintended consequences. We could divide these consequences into two categories, based on the groups of people they affect.

The first group is the members themselves—i.e., the people whose particular attribute makes them “diverse.” Consider Sophia, a Hispanic woman from a low-income background who works at a fictional software company. Suppose that a mid-level leadership position just opened in this company, and Sophia was selected from among a dozen other candidates for the job. Suppose, moreover, that the CEO of this company is an outspoken advocate for diversity and has cast a vision that the other leaders feel obligated to realize. Given these facts, what unintended consequences might Sophia experience?

One possibility is self-doubt. As a faithful reader of the corporate newsletter and an attendee of office diversity functions, Sophia knows the organizational climate; this knowledge may lead her to doubt her qualifications for the promotion. Perhaps leadership hired her for reasons other than her skill as a software designer. Perhaps, instead, she was hired to serve as a poster child for the CEO’s diversity vision. These questions fill her with angst.

I am not saying that Sophia was unqualified. Suppose she was the most skilled candidate of the group, with the greatest leadership potential. Even under these conditions, Sophia may still question the promotion, and these doubts could undermine her confidence as a leader.

Now, suppose instead that she was not as qualified as other applicants but was chosen to add more ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity to the leadership ranks. Though well-meaning, this decision may expose Sophia to challenges she is unprepared to address, increasing her likelihood of failure and thus “confirming” the self-doubt we considered above.

These situations—one where Sophia is qualified, the other where she is not—represent the first category of unintended consequences stemming from our present approach to diversity. The second category shifts the focus from Sophia to her coworkers.  Here, we return to the problem of doubt. In this case, however, the doubt exists on the part of those people around Sophia. They, too, know the climate in their company, and this causes some to question Sophia’s merits, either as their new peer or as their leader. Among her peers, this might cause them to treat her—however politely—as inferior. And among her subordinates, this might undermine the respect she needs to lead them effectively. All this, even if she was the most qualified candidate.

Will these unintended consequences arise in every case where someone of a diverse background is hired? No. But might they? This seems quite possible, especially in organizations that routinely champion diversity and whose people feel pressured to realize that vision across the board.

Why We Should Care about Diversity

Having identified some of the problems with shallow thinking about diversity, we should nonetheless recognize the genuine value that certain forms of diversity can bring. Examples include diverse skill sets, personalities, experiences, and approaches to problems.

Consider “skill sets.” As an Air Force officer, I have witnessed firsthand the awesome power of people with various skill sets teaming together to tackle a challenge. I saw this in Japan, as service members partnered at a moment’s notice to airlift relief supplies for earthquake and tsunami victims. I saw it in Honduras, as soldiers, sailors, and local officials worked to transport patients from remote outposts for treatment aboard a floating hospital—all while translating across three languages! Diversity of this sort works marvels every day.

Christian teaching has long affirmed this fact. St. Paul writes of the church as a “body,” with members possessing complementary “gifts.” Moreover, St. John records a vision of heaven in which believers from “every nation, tribe, people and language” unite in praise to God. Such diversity, undergirded by a deeper unity, rightly evokes our awe.

I write, therefore, not to condemn diversity but to scrutinize facile discussions about it. Diversity is complex—much more so than our popular treatment of the subject suggests. If we desire a fruitful conversation about diversity, we first need to recognize—and reckon with—this complexity.

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