The Case for Diversity

The issue of racial and gender diversity in our schools, companies, and communities has become highly politicized. While one tribe sees diversity as an imperative cure-all for many of the world’s problems, another tribe sees diversity as a form of tokenism at best, and a nefarious conspiracy at worst. Even political moderates can have a visceral reaction to the term “diversity” and may accept any line of thinking that validates their reaction, leading to shallow reasoning on all fronts. Rather than advocate for a particular position in this essay, I hope to add some nuance to the conversation and show that the truth is much more complicated than many are willing to admit.

The business case for diversity

What are the arguments for and against diversity? It’s often claimed with certainty that a diverse workforce is good for a business’s bottom line, but the data doesn’t actually show an effect on a business’s profits. Take women on boards, as one example.

A 2015 meta-analysis published in PLOS One showed that all-else-being-equal, “the mere representation of females on corporate boards is not related to firm financial performance”. Another 2015 meta-analysis published in the Academy of Management Journal also found that across 140 studies, the relationship between gender parity on boards and market performance was near zero. What seems to matter most is not the gender of executives on a board, but their individual talents and team cohesiveness.

What about other kinds of diversity? Scott Page argues in The Diversity Bonus: How Good Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy that cognitively diverse teams can lead to more innovation and better decision making. Indeed, this has been demonstrated by a recent study titled The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds which found that polarization among Wikipedia editors leads to articles of higher quality. In his book, Page extends the umbrella term of cognitive diversity to include “identity diversity” arguing that “racial and gender differences” can impact cognitive diversity, so this can lead to beneficial outcomes as well.

We should also keep in mind, though, that diversity may decrease social cohesion (i.e., sense of belonging and group solidarity),1 which has been linked to personal well-being and economic output. Diversity may have many benefits, but there are likely to be some costs as well.

To address this decrease in social cohesion, organizations now offer inclusion programs. Unfortunately, these inclusion programs can amplify the salience of gender and ethnic identities, which worsens social tensions by making divisions more apparent.

In countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, governments have addressed problems in social cohesion with some degree of success by doing the opposite: pushing their citizens to identify with their nation rather than their tribe, clan, or ethnic lineage. These policies, however, are controversial, and more often favored by majority groups.

A diverse workforce may not increase profits, but some would argue that it increases the number of potential applicants—this is valid if people prefer to work for companies with a diverse workforce, but it’s unclear if this actually happens. We should look for talent in unconventional places, revisit exclusionary norms, and make sure everyone feels welcome, regardless of their identity. However, going too far, like with gender quotas, can stigmatize those you’re trying to help and cause both men and women to be less likely to apply.

Moral arguments

Now that it’s becoming clearer that the economic arguments for diversity consist more of aspirations than evidence, pundits have shifted towards moral arguments. This becomes contentious, though, because of how much morals differ, particularly between different political orientations. The greatest difference is in how much conservatives and progressives view disparities between groups as fair, with progressives less satisfied with the status quo.2 We should, however, be careful regarding how much we depend on moral arguments; moralizing an issue constrains our thinking and labels anyone who disagrees with us as immoral.

The core moral argument is that of equal opportunity. Nearly everyone agrees that equal opportunity is good, but disagreements lie in what constitutes unequal opportunities and what measures should be taken to correct these. A common assumption by progressives is that an unequal outcome is evidence of unequal opportunity, or unequal treatment. Unequal outcomes between groups are often blamed on outside forces such as systemic racism or sexism. While there is no doubt that bigotry remains a problem, and its historical injustices still impact people, focusing only on these issues will likely misdiagnose and exacerbate conflict.

For example, research suggests that one reason why Asian Americans excel academically is due to cultural values which encourage intense academic effort.3 In contrast, in some communities working hard at school may be discouraged, and those who do so may be punished by their peers. Of course, these differences in culture are influenced by history, and aren’t the sole cause of disparities, but programs that punish Asians, reify race, and perpetuate false narratives do little to solve problems.

To compound this, affirmative action policies at the college level often hurt the groups that they most intend to help, by creating a mismatch between qualifications and requirements. Affirmative action has been shown to lead to higher dropout rates, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), reminding us that policy needs to be evaluated by its outcomes and not by its intentions.


To promote a fair workplace for all we should, of course, strive to eliminate potential sources of bias, especially in the job application process, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that this will solve all of our problems. For example, in STEM, women are generally underrepresented, but the research is mixed on whether there is positive, negative, or no hiring bias for women, with meta-analyses showing that bias against women is only historical, and a distraction to the real issues women face (such as structural barriers regarding childcare). Today, the assumption of gender bias and preference for equal outcomes over fairness is increasingly common; for example, a gender-blind hiring program for Australian government jobs was halted when it was shown to help men.

Yet even if women in male-dominated careers aren’t helped by race- and gender-blind applications, underrepresented minorities might be. While both women and straight men have a positive bias for women, we generally have a positive bias for the ethnicity of our family.4 Research suggests, though, that we stop noticing the race of others when we perceive that we are on the same “team”. In fact, when groups mix, prejudice lowers if the groups cooperate and have equal status.

Reducing society’s prejudices and eliminating stereotypes are part of the goal of diversity programs. Unfortunately, one of the main causes for stereotypes is observation of group differences. Thus, affirmative action programs which form disparities between groups within an organization can create negative stereotypes that wouldn’t necessarily exist with blind hiring. Research suggests that this also perpetuates social segregation because people form friendships with others of similar skill levels. A possible fix is to provide additional training to reduce disparities, but this may lead to more perceived unfairness, resentment, and segregation if done unevenly.

The minority experience

Another cause of segregation and disadvantage for minorities may be differences between the minority culture and the dominant culture. Increasing representation of minorities may be one way to address this, but it’s impossible to equally represent every group. Programs that normalize and celebrate different cultures can help ensure that everyone feels welcome, but may also reduce group solidarity in the process. Unfortunately, interests often don’t align, majority groups generally prefer minorities to assimilate, but many groups don’t want to lose their identity.

While it’s true that different cultures and viewpoints are correlated with demographics, they aren’t binded to them. Tying race and culture, which many diversity programs implicitly do, leads to some of the anger behind cultural appropriation, feeds white identitarian politics, and perpetuates the myth that all minorities think alike. None of these outcomes appear optimal over the long term.

We should also remember that the focus on race and gender diversity often distracts from discussions about class, which is now a stronger determinant in educational and life outcomes than race.5 Shifting policies to take class and other measures of disadvantage into account rather than race can still increase racial diversity while maintaining fairness and maximizing human potential. I recommend this approach, but also believe that caution should be taken. Policies of beneficence can also have unintended consequences of discouraging personal agency, resiliency, and self-improvement.


Why do counterproductive programs and misinformation persist? There’s an entire diversity industry filled with books, workshops, and human resource departments that is heavily invested in the value of diversity. The incentives for diversity researchers are also skewed, with publication bias being common. Organizations are scrutinized if their “diversity numbers” aren’t good enough, leading to short-sighted and, at times, illegal policies. If that weren’t bad enough, questioning these policies is considered taboo (and can get you fired).

One’s stance on diversity policies often just depends on what metric you’re trying to optimize, causing both sides to talk past each other. This lack of dialogue is destructive, creating multimillion dollar programs of marginal efficacy and harmful side-effects. If done well, diversity can be good, but it’s far from the panacea it’s made out to be.

Originally published in Quillette on February 12, 2018.

[1] Diversity decreasing social cohesion also illustrates why conservatives are more often dubious of “diversity”: social cohesion is highly valued by conservatives.

[2] The vast majority of people (conservatives and progressives, minorities and non-minorities) oppose using race or gender as a factor in hiring, promoting, or college admissions, but opinions are mixed on outreach programs.

[3] Asian Americans also bear significant social and psychological costs due to their increased academic effort and expectations, making programs that punish the group for overachieving all the more perverse.

[4] Caveat, the Implicit Association Test used to measure these biases is controversial and it’s unclear how much it measures familiarity or salience rather than preference.

[5] Note, I never actually defined diversity because there’s no agreed upon definition. Intuitively, diversity means more heterogeneity or more similar to some base population. Unfortunately, there’s so many dimensions on which to measure heterogeneity or compare two populations that this is easy to manipulate into meaning whatever is most politically favored. To take a specific example, Silicon Valley has gotten a lot of heat because of its lack of racial and gender diversity, but how diverse can it truly become if nearly everyone is still young, liberal, upper middle class, atheist nerds?