How many women are there on executive boards? How many ethnic minority students make it into the Ivy League? Questions like this highlight our current approach to demographic diversity. We select a context and analyse the proportion of people with a marginalised trait. Then, if we deem a group underrepresented, we try to introduce policies to increase representation. This approach is understandable. It makes intuitive sense that we analyse diversity in institutions rather than in society as a whole. We normally accept the amount of diversity in the general population as the standard and assume that industries should replicate this baseline if they’re equitable and inclusive. For example, we criticise the Oscars for the fact that award winners are whiter and more male than the general US population. Executive boards, parliaments, and elite universities have sometimes been criticised for similar reasons.
There are some benefits to this approach. It stands to reason that an organisation that doesn’t place barriers in front of marginalised groups should be more diverse than one that does. However, focusing on diversity in this context is somewhat flawed. It measures the end result rather than the process, and as such is likely to incentivize practices that paper over unfairness rather than fixing it. Let’s take the example of a lack of female executives (only around 23% are women). In practice, there are a lot of reasons why the percentage of women in executive positions is far lower than the percentage of women in the general population. These reasons include not only bias against women when choosing executives, but also structural factors that could prevent women from getting to the point in their careers where they would normally be considered for these positions.
A key factor is that wives in heterosexual marriages are much more likely to stay home to raise children than their husbands are. This gap means that only 49% of working-age women are in the labour force, whereas almost three quarters of working-age men have jobs. Even when women don’t stop working, they still shoulder the majority of child-care duties, such as staying home during sick days and managing children’s schedules. This means that even when they stay in the work-force, women may have less time to cultivate their careers. Even without bias from the company, this would lead to less female executives. Of course, this situation isn’t inevitable. Firms could incentivize a more even distribution of labour in the home by providing not only generous maternity leave but also generous paternity leave. They could also implement policies to help working parents such as normalising flexible hours or providing on-site child care.
Of course, this would cost firms money. This makes them less likely to invest in these practices themselves, and could also make firms more resistant to having such measures imposed on them, such as through legislation. Luckily for firms and lawmakers, there’s another option that can lead to diversity without changing how they do things. This policy option is imposing quotas. Lawmakers can say 40% of boards must be female and technically have near equal representation. Meanwhile, women will still be dropping out of the workforce to raise children at disproportionately high rates or falling behind in their careers because they have to balance work with doing the majority of household chores. The real problem is not solved. It only appears to be.
What does this imply about how we should approach diversity? Going forward, we must be careful not to confuse cause and effect. Organisations are not equitable because they are diverse. They are diverse because they are equitable. This is not to say that looking at percentages should be abandoned entirely. A very low proportion of people with a marginalised trait suggests there is a problem somewhere. However, we need to always consider why an organisation has particular proportions of different demographic groups. Doing this will show us two things. Firstly, it will reveal which organisations have prioritised diversity without equity. Secondly and most importantly, we will learn what barriers are actually preventing marginalised people from accessing a position or industry. Removing these should always be our main focus and priority.
Once we’ve identified these barriers, we will quickly come across another problem with our way of viewing diversity. Only around 8% of Ivy League students are black, despite affirmative action programs. Why is this? 45% of black students attended schools with high poverty rates, compared to 8% of white students. This has several implications. Firstly, it suggests that black children disproportionately live in poverty, which can impact their ability to pay for college, especially at Ivy League institutions. The university could do something about this by offering more income-based scholarships, or by charging different fees to different income groups automatically.
However, growing up in poverty has other effects that the university can do much less about. Studies suggest that poverty is one of the main factors which can hinder academic performance. As a result, the fact that black students in the US are disproportionately low-income could mean that fewer of them meet the requirements for Ivy League universities in the first place. This is particularly the case as high-poverty school districts in the US actually receive less money per student than wealthier districts despite their students’ increased needs.
At the end of the day, removing all bias from Ivy League admissions won’t lead to a proportional representation of black students. Even offering dramatically more financial support for low-income applicants won’t fix the problem, because it started long before students even send in their applications. We have a tendency to look at diversity as a problem in particular industries or contexts, but this view is flawed. Contexts are interlinked. Black students will get into Ivy League universities at lower rates so long as high-poverty schools continue to get lower funding and black children remain more likely to live in poverty.
Meanwhile, this poverty will persist in part because fewer black people get college degrees, especially from prestigious universities. However, it will also persist for other reasons. For example, a frequently biased justice system leads to higher rates of incarceration along with the fact that former inmates are discriminated against in job searches. Equity can’t be achieved in one context and not others. If we are to make meaningful progress anywhere, we must demand it everywhere.
Our approach to diversity needs to evolve. First, we need to remember that equity leads to diversity but that diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to equity. Instead of focusing on the percentage of a demographic group in a given context, we need to focus on the barriers that the group faces. Our work is done when all those barriers are removed, not when quotas artificially increase representation. Secondly, we need to look at equity and diversity on a larger scale. Trying to fix a lack of representation in one context isn’t enough, because the problem can’t be fixed or even fully understood on such a small scale.
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