Diversity = Productivity

Today’s NY Times has an article on research that strongly supports the benefits of diversity to organizations.  At the same time, Gloria Steinem has an op-ed piece on a strong force against diversity.  After giving some  snippets from these two articles, we’ll look at a question about philosophy as an academic field.

The forces against diversity?  Racism and sexism are two strong ones.  Steinem’s piece today argues that the commentators’ reactions to the current US campaigns for the Democratic nomination show that sexism is the stronger. A black man may win, but women are never frontrunners:

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

(Compare the last clause with Jender’s post immediately below this one.  Also, Jender  in the comments on this post points us to this excellent  discussion of Steinem’s claim about racism.)

UPDATE:  See Jender’s more recent post on the blatant racism in US politics.  After thinking about the Steinem remarks, it now seems to me that the enterprise of comparing quantities of evil, particularly when one is the not the target of one of them, may make it much harder to discern the evil.  Whether or not that’s true, it seems right to be concerned that Steinem’s piece in fact could facilitate the competition among the oppressed that she  wants to say would be wrong and destructive.

Why is diversity good? Scot E. Page has developed mathematical models of its effects, showing the benefits. His doing so may help people grasp his claims, but to readers of this blog it should seem just common sense:

Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

It’s important to realize that Page does not necessarily mean racial and gender diversity; he’s looking at different ways of thinking and approaching problems that cut across all sorts of categories. Still, in practice a lot of the diversity will be racial and gender diversity.

So we can all read Page’s book, present the arguments to our departments, and they’ll all start to look at ways to become more diverse. Right?

I’m sceptical, but it is less clear to me why one should be so. After all, there have been significant changes in the ways philosophy is done. So the discipline is not totally inflexible. Nonetheless, I suspect that in ours and a number of other academic fields, faculty will say that they are simply not interested in any of changes diversity could bring.  They know in advance that the changes won’t be worth it.  And just how do they know that?

When I held a Significant Faculty Leadership Position, I used to hear the arguments a lot. And my conclusion was that fundamentally “they,” the guys in charge, do not think we can do it as well as they do.

Other responses are very welcome!!

14 thoughts on “Diversity = Productivity

  1. Jonolan, Good point. I put in a clarification that is suggested in Steinem’s piece and that my reference to Jender’s post (and other posts here) might indicate. The sexism we’ve been talking about has been prinicipally that in the press and other commentators.

    Any two endeavors can be considered to share some framework. That’s really just a point in logic: “same” does very little theoretical work. I’m be interested in how you understand ‘framework’ so that your comment does not end up vacuous. And the evidence you are drawing on would also be great to see.

  2. Jonolan, philosophers tend not to accept conjectures about possible examples as settling factual issues. I mean, we’re fond of the a priori, but not that fond.

  3. Hi JJ and Jonolan,
    I think Jonolan is making a reasonable point that needn’t be cast in terms of frameworks, which is that not all forms of diversity will help things along. A philosophy department is more diverse in *some* sense if its teaching staff includes both people who know about philosophy and people totally ignorant about philosophy. But clearly that’s not what we want. So a totally simple-minded implementation of ‘diversity’ doesn’t do what we want. Properly specifying the sorts of diversity that do increase productivity is a significant and worthwhile task. I seem to recall some good discussion of this stuff in Helen Longino’s work.

  4. JJ, I wanted to take up the claim that sexism is stronger than racism. I’m extremely hesitant about any comparison like this. I think the two forces are *different* and manifest themselves differently. It’s far more socially acceptable to say that women are different from men by nature than that blacks are different from whites by nature. Also, there’s a felt need for “racial reconciliation” that there just isn’t for reconciliation between the sexes. Related to both of these, there’s a strong desire to show that one doesn’t even notice race, and little corresponding desire to show that one doesn’t notice sex. All of this helps Obama enormously, and makes whites feel very good about themselves for supporting him. But that will also help them to think that racism has been conquered and is a thing of the past, which will be enormously bad because it’s so false. White people are very eager to convince themselves everything’s great with respect to race, and will apparently vote for Obama. But this doesn’t mean anything at all about the depth of racism, both personal and institutional, in America, and its horrendous effects. Racism isn’t hurting Obama as much as sexism is hurting Clinton. But I would draw any conclusions about the strength of these forces from that. I’d also note a big SO FAR. The race is young, and just yesterday I got a vicious racist email about Obama forwarded to me.

  5. Jender, Jonolan

    Yes, of course, not all diversity is productive and if that’s the point, it seems right. I would have thought that the examples and context in the articles made it clear that there was some baseline for competence and surely more. E.g., a company may not be better off diverifying an honest workforce with a lot of crooks.

    I would like to think that in discussions of diversity in, e.g., academia we had moved on from having to say that of course we wanted competent women, not just any woman, etc. I was concerned that Jonolan was coming from a perspective where we still can’t relax and assume that advocates of diversity are not advocatess of stupid and harmful actions.

  6. Jender,

    I’m so glad that you picked up on the “sexism is worse” statement. I spent some time thinking about it and then forgot to say at least that it is questionable.

    My best guess is that there are so many different dimensions in which both operate that some are bound to be affected by one more than by another. It would be remarkable to claim it was usually sexism, and I don’t know how one could show that.

    One thing that I have seen is that a lot more people IN MY EXPERIENCE are consciously aware of the evils of racism than of the evils of sexism. I still meet, e.g., bright young men of my son’s generation who know at least the standard things to look for with racism, but who haven’t seen how sexism has informed the discourse around Clinton.

    That said, too many of the people aware of the evils of racism think that it’s all in the past, and of course they aren’t racists, which all mounts up in their minds to a good reason for being against affirmative action.

  7. Jonolan,
    But perhaps looking carefully at what some groups advocate and why they are doing so can put some questions to rest. In fact, over a wide range of things – from educational measure to medical interventions to social policy changes – positions get questioned and tested and their advocates are subjected to a lot of scrutiny. The process is by no means straight forward; for example, advocates of battery powered cars have apparently had to deal with a great deal of disinformation being unloaded. Still, we can get some clarity and move forward on some things, thank goodness.

    Is everything about an advocate for diversity still questionable or have some things been settled? After decades in the area, I think it is pretty clear that academically highly qualified advocates for diversity are by and large not stupid and destructive. That doesn’t mean they are unquestionably right, but it does mean that they aren’t advocating things that are obviously very foolish. I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that only academic qualifications will count; the point is rather that Page, with whom this discussion began, certainly has those.

  8. As to Steinem, Amanda at Pandagon says a lot of excellent stuff here. It’s much more coherent than what I was gesturing at.

  9. I also really appreciated AngryBlackBitch’s take on the Steinem op-ed, which I know is taking us away some from the discussion on diversity.


    On diversity, though: in the US and Canada, one of the main worries about diversity language in the anti-racist circles I know is the extent to which it’s been co-opted by a corporate capitalist agenda, precisely as a way for companies to be more productive, govern workers more efficiently, and so on. So I’m interested in moving beyond the Steinem model, the diversity model, and into something closer to multi-valent anti-oppression politics. Diversity in practice might be good, but the rhetoric of diversity doesn’t seem to me to do much for us.

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  11. Alexis, thanks for the reference. I may not be understanding your point about diversity language, but it might be close to what I was alluding to in responding to Jender: many people know better than to talk like overt racists and unfortunately that gives them the impression that they aren’t racists and so in effect a reassurance that it’s alright to act on what are in fact racist judgments.

    But two points should be made: the people discussed in the main post above are talking more about actions and policies than language. It’s pretty easy to see how some policies that promote diversity could be actually motivated by managerial desires to pay lower salaries, but determining to what extent that is happening would need careful and extensive research. Anecdotal evidence tends to be very misleading about the extent to which something is occurring.

    Secondly, it can be a very good thing that talking as an overt racist is socially unacceptable even if the social prohibition gets misused. At the very least, it means that one powerful way to promulgate racist stereotypes is rendered much less active.

  12. jonolan, it is true that there are many, many ways language affects and perhaps can constitute policy and/or goals. For political purposes, the most informative approach is to look at the actual details, in my opinion.

    one area where the discussions are particularly interesting and enlightening is the post-colonialism literature, which in part investigates how differences in power and control can work through a language that is in its effects debasing or dehumanizing.

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