This essay originally appeared in Quillette on December 11, 2018.
How could any reasonable person oppose diversity and inclusion in the workplace? Answer: Because “diversity and inclusion” in the work context is actually a euphemism for something else.
During an October 30 summit held by Google, attendees listened to a panel discussion titled, “Beyond Hype, How Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace Maximizes Your Bottom Line.” The panelists’ comments amounted to a very irregular definition of “diversity and inclusion:” A desire for equal outcomes among all identity groups, and disadvantaging individuals in overrepresented demographic categories.
Adam Berlew, head of Americas Marketing for Google Cloud, moderated the panel, which featured guests Joanna Dees, VP of educational programs at Women in Cable Telecommunications; Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA Today Network; Tom Kazmierczak Jr., head of diversity and inclusion at T. Rowe Price Associates; and Lori Rosenkopf, vice dean and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, undergraduate division.
All participants advocated for changing workplace policies to increase the representation of women, people of color, and LGBT communities in the corporate world. There’s nothing wrong with increased representation of these groups. The problem is how identity group disparities are measured and which methods are used to correct them.
For example, Ms. Dees brought attention to the tired trope of the gender wage gap, saying, “On average, still, a woman only earns 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.” Numerous economists and scholars have shown this oft-cited statistic is misleading, at best. But Ms. Dees went on to note that women make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet less than five percent run Fortune 500 companies. She explained that, “If our goal is 50-50 [gender representation], we all have some serious work to do.” But that intention is misplaced. Such disparities don’t necessarily indicate prejudice at work, and in the absence of prejudice, forcing 50-50 representation would require prejudice against the majority group.
A number of the panelists also praised unconscious bias training for employees. As of 2015, 20 percent of companies provided such workshops. The notion of “unconscious bias” is based on implicit-association tests, which ask participants to look at pictures of members of various identity groups and then measure their response time in matching images with either pleasant or unpleasant words. Such tests have been subject to an abundance of criticism—most notably that the tests don’t measure bias, but unrelated things such as the time it takes to switch tasks. It’s also the case that many people with strong negative implicit-association test results don’t show any overt racism in their actions.
Unconscious bias training is based on an unproven and cynical worldview: Deep down, everyone is at least a little bit bigoted. This perspective may serve to delude bigoted people into justifying their prejudices as “normal.” Some research explicitly suggests unconscious bias training may actually create a norm for stereotyping and thus increase its prevalence.
Mr. Kazmierczak also referred to the T. Rowe Price Associates board of directors as having “over 40 percent diversity,” as if an individual can be measured as diverse. In Mr. Kazmierczak’s telling, a board made up entirely of black women would be 100 percent diverse. That’s not the definition of diversity; the word means having “variety” or “difference” in relation to a larger group. In practice, labeling an individual as diverse “others” members of minority groups, which weakens the concept of a larger unified humanity, and encourages individuals to silo themselves according to tribal notions of group membership.
The panelists claimed that to be competitive, businesses must hire and promote for a diversity of identities and ethnicities, but in fact, research shows the most valuable sort of diversity in hiring is diversity of thought. Intellectual diversity can sometimes correlate with diversity of identity group membership and end up increasing demographic variety as a side effect, but it doesn’t need to.
Mr. Kazmierczak and others lauded “business resource groups,” which are working groups segregated along identity lines. He noted that T. Rowe Price Associates has working groups for ethnic minorities, one for female employees, and an LGBTQ and allies group. Such groups can limit diversity of thought by actively encouraging members to think through the lens of their identity group, and then keeping the groups working separately. Not too long ago, this would have been recognized as segregation. Even if resource group membership occurred voluntarily, desegregation efforts would have broken up such a work style.
At the end of the panel, the first questioner, an Indian man (his demographic group only provided because Mr. Kazmierczak would have considered him “diverse”) criticized the panel using many of the arguments cited above. All the panelists declined to respond to any of his criticisms on stage, and only Ms. Rosenkopf confessed that she agreed “diversity of thought” could be important, too.
Only a little over a year ago, Google became embroiled in a controversy over the firing of engineer James Damore, who wrote an internal memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The memo criticized Google’s diversity policies on the grounds that various factors—not just discrimination—could lead to disparities in gender representation, and that discriminating against men would lead to worse outcomes. Several scientists who commented on the controversy agreed with Damore on key aspects of his argument.
And according to a Harvard-Harris poll of registered voters, 55 percent of those surveyed said Google was wrong to fire Damore, including 50 percent of Democrats. That same poll found 52 percent “oppose giving minorities preference in hiring to add diversity.” In response to facing class action lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian men and conservative white men, Google has taken it to arbitration (indicating that the company may be eager to settle the action behind closed doors).
Sadly, it doesn’t seem Google has learned much since Damore’s firing. And given Google’s influence throughout the corporate world, that is disturbing. The industry website Inside HR has said Google has “reinvented HR” and promoted the tech giant’s practices, including its efforts to improve diversity. NBC News, Inc., and Fortune have all positively covered Google’s diversity programs. Fortune noted that “as is often the case in tech, where Google goes, others attempt to follow.” Inc. reported that when Google released its first diversity report, it “[set] off a domino effect that led dozens of other tech companies to follow suit.” Google’s influence extends to Washington as well by financing think tanks and spending more on lobbying in 2017 than any other corporation.
With that kind of influence driving the wave of “diversity and inclusion” in corporate America, it won’t be easy to reverse this ideological tide. But that uphill battle is the reason more people need to know about how the word “diversity” is misused to promote, rather than end, judging people based on their immutable characteristics.