Companies and educational institutions, especially those that have a global footprint and a reputation to protect, make a big deal about diversity policies. It is almost impossible to sit through a recruitment or admissions talk by one such entity without a mention to their diversity policies, which they are proud of.
And they have good reasons to have a diverse workforce. It has been shown, for example, that diversity leads to better decision-making and overall better performance. Having a diverse workforce brings together people with different backgrounds, and since backgrounds influence opinion, a more diverse team is more likely to have more diversity of opinion which results in better decision making. And so forth.
The problem, however, is that it is not easy to simultaneously achieve diversity on all possible axes. Let’s say that we have defined a number of axes, and are looking to recruit an incoming MBA class. If we want diversity on each of these axes, selection of each candidate is going to rule out a large number of other candidates and we will need a really large pool to choose from. In other words, it is akin to the eight queens problem (where you have to place eight queens on a chessboard such that no two of them are on the same row, column or diagonal). For those of you not familiar with chess, think of it like a Sudoku puzzle.
Since the pool of candidates large enough to achieve diversity on all axes is simply not feasible, firms and schools choose to prioritise certain axes over others, and seek to achieve diversity in these chosen axes. And since they can arbitrarily choose axes that they can prioritise, the incentive is to pick out those axes where diversity is most visible.
And so when you go to a global organisation or school that preaches diversity, you will notice that they indeed have a very diverse workforce/student body in terms of gender, race, and nationality, which are fairly visible dimensions. Beyond this, the choice of dimensions to impose diversity on is a matter of discretion. So you have organisations which seek diversity in sexual orientation. Others seek diversity in age profile. Yet others in educational backgrounds. And so forth.
The result of prioritising more “visible” dimensions to ensure diversity is that organisations end up becoming horribly similar in the “sacrificed dimensions”. Check out this excerpt from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, for example, on the founding members of paypal:
The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek
Now, remember that this was a fairly diverse team when it came to ethnicity, nationality and sexuality. But in a less visible dimension, the team was not diverse at all. And Thiel mentions it in his book as if it’s a good thing that they all thought so similarly.
On a similar note, I once worked for an organisation that made great shakes of its diversity policy, and the organisation was pretty diverse in terms pretty much every visible axis of diversity. And the seminars (some compulsory) they organised helped me significantly broaden my outlook on issues such as race or sexual orientation. But when it came to work, the (fairly large) team was horribly similar. Quoting from an earlier blogpost (a bit ranty, I admit):
First, a large number of guys building models come from similar backgrounds, so they think similarly. Because so many people think similarly, the rest train themselves to think similarly (or else get nudged out, by whatever means). So you have massive organizations full of massively talented brilliant minds which all think similarly! Who is to ask the uncomfortable questions?
So essentially because you had a large organisation of people from basically similar educational backgrounds (masters and PhDs in similar subjects), their way of thinking became dominant, and others were forced to conform, leading to groupthink, which might have potentially led to mishaps (but didn’t, at least not in my time).
And what of the Ivy League schools that again pride themselves on (visible forms of) diversity? Here is an excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s excellent 2008 essay:
Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it.
So the next time you want to make your organisation diverse, think of which axes you want diversity on. If you are public-minded and want to brag about your diversity, the obvious way to go would be to be diverse on visible axes, but that leaves other issues. On the other hand you could put together a team of people that look the same but think different!
It’s entirely up to you!