About two months ago I highlighted this quote:
Diversity is not just demographic/identity. It includes knowledge, expertise, personality and thinking styles #NPA2015
— Shakira M. Nelson (@DrNelson_PhD) March 14, 2015
Also consider this passage on why diversity matters from my friend Kenny Gibbs:
However, while it’s important to avoid essentializing people (i.e., saying that an individual’s descriptive social identity prescribes something about how they will approach life and problem-solving), people from different backgrounds do, on average, tend to approach work and problem solving differently. These differences can bring new perspectives needed to promote innovation.
So if a primary benefit of diversity is different thinking and problem solving styles…why not just skip the whole race/gender/sexual orientation bit and go straight for that? Yes it’s true that on average different social groups approach problems differently and have different thinking styles. But on average, different thinking styles have different thinking styles! Why not make that your primary diversity metric and optimize for diversity along that dimension? Or at the very least, why don’t we pay attention to it more as a meaningful measure of diversity in and of itself?
You’ve asked an excellent and TOUGH question. And there are many ways to approach an answer. I’ll try one approach which is broad.
1) Addressing past inequalities and promoting diversity today, though linked, are two different things. For instance, imagine if we never had slavery and all forms of institutionalized racism. In this hypothetical world, you would still pursue diverse backgrounds; or, let me say, pursuing a diversity of backgrounds and experiences (remember different experiences and backgrounds do certainly produce different perspectives, ways-of-looking-at-a-problem, visions, etc.) would still be something companies and organizations and schools should do.
2) If you only diversify by thinking styles you are perpetuating historical inequalities. This is related to number one. In other words, there large sub-populations of people whose thinking styles would never be evaluated because they dropped out of the educational and employment systems long before reaching your organization, university or school. Or maybe they are underemployed in some job below their potential. Worse and even more importantly, social ills such as disease, lack of healthy nutrition, poor education, lack of healthcare, poverty, homelessness, and more, disproportionately affect races in the US and have huge effects on a person’s thinking style. It is well documented and I’ve seen it in my work as both a teacher and a counselor, that social issues and social ills can mute and deeply affect and alter someone’s personality as well as their learning.
This is why diversity work based on things like gender and race is not just about hiring more of people of this orientation, race, nationality, or gender. No, it is ALSO and fundamentally about increasing the numbers of those under-represented groups in the candidate pool, patching the leaking pipeline of candidates of under-represented groups and resolving the complexities, problems, and issues that cause them to drop out along the way or never let them enter in the first place (yes drops occur even before the start of the pipeline and people rarely talk about it).
I used to work for a company called G. And G would go to the best schools and try to recruit there never understanding that A) good people are found everywhere (according to research) and B) that poor recruitment strategy contributes to a homogeneous work force where everyone is the “same.” Trying to recruit different kinds of thinkers might work in the short term, but fails to take into account different types of thinkers are not even available in abundance due to racial/gender-based/etc. inequalities and poor recruitment strategies.
Kenny is right. I’m from a ethnic minority and just like the people I’m around but what I wanted G to do is recruit ethnic minorities from DIFFERENT backgrounds who never went to the schools I went. That requires a diverse recruitment strategy, not one that says “recruit at the number 1 and number 2 school.”
1) It’s REALLY hard to try to recruit based on different thinking styles because assessments of thinking/learning/problem-solving styles differ from self-labeled/determined thinking/learning/problem-solving styles which also differ from thinking/learning/problem-solving performance. Moreover, thinking/learning/problem-solving default performance can differ as well from learned thinking/learning/problem-solving styles. They don’t really match up. Possibly all an employer cares about is performance, but that is hard to determine from current interview processes, though some are better than others.
2) Since thinking styles are directly related to perspectives which are directly related to backgrounds, it’s completely fine to diversify based on backgrounds. This is what many industrial design firms using HCD processes due in terms of educational majors grouping engineers with social scientists and it works.
3) What Kenny calls backgrounds and what I call backgrounds are different. He’s calling race, ethnicity, orientation, etc. a background. When I say background, I’m referring to experience. So it’s helpful to specifically define that. I’m saying that experiential backgrounds do produce different perspectives and ways of thinking and you can diversify on that. Of course it’s possible for two people with two different racial backgrounds but from the same rich neighborhood and school to think similarly. Their backgrounds differ in terms of family ethnicity and history but not at the level of major life problems or daily school/neighborhood environment. They mostly have the same experiential background. The different parents would have to habitually teach and treat each of their children vastly differently to override that, emphasizing different work ethics and morals and aspirations very strongly and repeatedly, day-in-and-day-out. And that’s what makes social science so hard. It’s very difficult to isolate one factor and test it like you can in natural sciences.
4) So for today, because experiential backgrounds are HIGHLY HIGHLY CORRELATED to things like race, you can’t skip it. Not until the correlation becomes MUCH weaker. Otherwise, you can end up inadvertently strengthening the correlation and limiting diversity by diversifying experiential backgrounds within a race which has its limits due to the very institutionalized racially experiential segregation and racial institutionalization that has existed even through today.
Really, really good comment. I appreciate your taking the time to construct it. I think I agree with everything you’ve written. Will try to respond soon.