On the need for diversity

One of the topics that Noreena Hurtz covered in her book Eyes Wide Open, but which I felt deserved its own separate post, was on the need for diversity.

It is a hot topic at the moment. There is a lot of research suggestive of females being discriminated against in favour of males for example. The research on academic for example seems to clearly show that if you put a female name on something it will get less attention than if you put a male name on it.

However, we do nominally live in a free and equal society, so many people have asked how this can be the case. After all, it is illegal to discriminate on protected characteristics in the workplace for example.

For me, Hurtz has been the first person to do a good job of rounding up the research.

The bias within

Hurtz talks about auditions for musicians to join symphony orchestras. To his credit, Gladwell also talks about this. The biggest change in recent decades is that it is now common for musicians to perform behind a screen, so that the judging committee cannot see them. The result has been that women, who were almost never seen in such orchestras are now far more regularly hired.

How can this be so? One answer, of course, is that people are just bigots. However, I have always found this difficult to accept. Maybe that was the case 50 years ago, but today, does anyone genuinely believe women should be paid less than men? I simply cannot imaging anyone thinking that. Of course, maybe they do, and I have just lead a sheltered life of high intellectual society. But this seems unlikely as such problems equally permeate the Skeptics movement.

However, Hurtz shows there is an alternative explanation, one on the subconscious. We are all biased. We are biased to people who look like us in terms of gender, skin colour, and even name! Without knowing it, I am more likely to get on with someone also named Chris than I am with someone named Phil, or Matt, or Dan. It is not that anyone is consciously discriminating, it is that our minds have evolved to be more trusting of individuals that look like us. The reasons for this are plentiful and probably fairly obvious to those of us with an understanding of human and genetic evolution.

This does not mean that there is anything inherently bigoted about each of us (or you could also look at it as we are, but we are all as bad as each other), but it is important to accept that there is a subconscious bias that we need to be aware of and try and correct for where possible.

Why it is important

This is important because there is also research to show that better decisions are made when a broader range of diverse people have input. On a large scale, this is being used by governments and the scientific community to try and gather ideas from as wide a range of people as possible.

On a local level, it means trying to actively promote a broader range of backgrounds. If you have two possible candidates for a job for example, and they both seem equally qualified, the one with the background least similar to yours is probably the one you should pick.

What we are talking about here is real diversity. For example, if I was to hire a black woman who grew up in Leeds and studied computing at university, I would not actually add much diversity, because he experiences would be very similar to mine. It is more than skin deep. However, actively seeking diverse backgrounds for genuine reasons – because you want to overcome the subconscious bias and find people that will add a new way of looking at problems – can only help you make better decisions and be more successful.



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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 2014 at 11:02 am and is filed under Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.