Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Prioritizing diversity

Every time anyone talks about how to deal with the underrepresentation of minorities and women in many fields, and especially at the manager level, there will always be some white men pushing back, and talking about how the evils of affirmative actions and quotas are harming the poor white men, and resulting in companies having to hire unqualified people. Also, don’t you know that there are fields where men have a hard time getting jobs?

This is, of course, absolute bullshit, and I will to explain why that’s the case, while explaining how a good way of trying to deal with underrepresentation works. I call it simply “prioritizing diversity”.

I will start out with two notes:
  1. The ideas I present here are not mine, but are actually how the policies are implemented in some companies. Very successful companies, I should add.
  2. This post is not about whether diversity is a good thing or not. It is based on the premise that diversity is something to strive for. I will probably write a post in the future on why this is the case, but this is not it. So, please don’t try to start an argument about this point in the comments.
OK, that out of the way, let’s start with dealing with the strawmen raised by the privileged people afraid of losing their privileged position.

First of all, the aim is to have the greatest possible diversity in all fields and in all positions. There are some rare positions where this is not possible (I am sure you can all think of some), but in the vast majority of positions, this is not the case.

Second of all, when I talk about diversity, I am talking about diversity in backgrounds, genders, races (a concept which I don’t really accept, but which is a useful shorthand in this case), sexual orientation etc. I am not talking about diversity in opinions, and often not in education. If someone wants to be a doctor, they really should have a medical degree, and be willing to do their job, regardless of e.g. religion. A would-be pharmacists who doesn’t want to sell condoms, is not suited for the job.

I hope we are all still on the same page.

Going back to how to deal with underrepresentation, or rather lack of diversity, it is obvious that any measures need to start with the recruitment process, and be involved in the promotion process.

Starting with the recruitment process, it is the simple truth that for any position, there are a large number of qualified candidates. This means that after everything is said and done, there has to be some kind of arbitrary method of making the final filtering, before choosing who to hire. Well, that arbitrary method might as well be diversity. Who adds the most diversity to the organization? Yes, there might be someone else who has, on paper, better qualifications, but that is only true if you don’t consider adding diversity a qualification. I certainly do. Also, remember, we are talking about prioritizing among qualified people for the job – it doesn’t matter if the others have e.g. better educational qualifications; they all have good enough qualifications.

This should hopefully lead to more underrepresented groups being hired, on basis on their qualifications, which, as I said, includes adding diversity, helping reduce groupthink etc.

Next important step is of course, working with prioritizing diversity when promoting people. This is much trickier. People tend to look at people similar to themselves when looking for material for promotion. Here quotas might be necessary for a period of time, but hopefully, a clearly stated guideline of prioritizing diversity, as well as proper review of proposed promotions to vacant positions, will make this unnecessary.

Perhaps something similar to how I understand the Finnish rules are for gender-disparity in the company Board of Directors. Companies have to have a certain percentage of women in their board. Otherwise, they have to include a statement with the public financial statements explaining why they don’t.

Apparently, very few companies have a problem finding qualified women for the Board of Directors.

How this could be implemented is of course the question, and really depends a lot on the companies involved. But a lot of it, really has more to do with changing the attitude of the company, so everyone understand the value of diversity, and why it should be prioritized.

So, to sum it up, prioritizing diversity will obviously have a negative impact for the in-group, who currently form the recruitment ground for a given field or type of position, but it will not lead to unqualified people getting hired, and it definitely is beneficiary for the people outside the in-group.

A final note: This blogpost owes a huge debt to Rebecca Parsons, who made the idea, of using diversity as a final selection criteria, click for me.

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