What Is Diversity? And Why Is It Valuable?

Suppose I just get back from vacation, and you ask me how it went. “Oh, it was wonderful,” I say, “There was such diversity.” That wouldn’t answer your question at all. Instead, you’d want to know two things: Diversity of what? And why would that sort of diversity make the vacation better? It doesn’t make sense to speak about diversity, full stop. There’s only diversity of this or that. And diversity isn’t always valuable. In fact, different types of diversity are valuable for different reasons. If I had said that my vacation was wonderful because there was a diversity of restaurants, activities, and so forth, my answer would have been perfectly sensible. But without that qualification, talk of diversity alone is meaningless.

Despite this, higher education continues to talk about diversity in the abstract. As the new school year begins and administrators and faculty set priorities and initiatives, they will inevitably talk about diversity without specifying what counts as diversity and why that sort of diversity matters. This isn’t merely a semantic quibble. There are two good reasons to be conceptually clear about our diversity goals.

First, conceptual clarity around diversity is required for measuring progress. If we don’t know what counts as diversity, we’re in no position to track progress towards our goals. Universities across the country are scrambling to mount DEI initiatives (for example, see here and here). How can we tell whether a DEI initiative has worked? At what point would we be willing to say a campus is diverse enough? Given the focus on assessment elsewhere in higher education, we ought to have a way to assess the success of diversity strategies.

Second, we have to be clear about why a certain type of diversity is valuable in order to make decisions about priorities. All strategies require trade-offs. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If we don’t know why a particular sort of diversity is valuable, then we’re in no position to weigh the goods of that sort of diversity against others.

The lesson is that we shouldn’t talk about diversity simpliciter. Doing so leads to strategic plans that are not strategic and decision-making that isn’t sound. Instead, we should specify what kind of diversity we are interested in and articulate why that kind of diversity is valuable.

Types of diversity

People differ from one another in many different ways. When a university launches a diversity initiative, which of these many aspects are we trying to diversify? Here are a few options.

People have different demographic characteristics. These include things like age, sex, and race but also more subtle things like gender, class, and sexual orientation. Nationality is in this category, too: some of us are native US citizens, and some of us are immigrants.

People have different psychological characteristics. These include things like being an extrovert or an introvert, gregarious or shy, outspoken or reserved. No two of us have the same psychological profile or share the same set of intellectual or moral virtues and vices.

People have different viewpoints or ideologies. These include things like political orientation and religious orientation. Some of us are secular liberals. Others are religious conservatives. And there’s everything in between.

People have different histories, including both their personal experiences and their formal training. Some of us are first-generation college students while others were legacy admits to prestigious schools. Some of us were trained in the Ivy Leagues while others went to land grant state colleges. Some of us have work experience in arenas very different from our current postings. Others have been in the same economic sector for our entire working lives.

Each of these aspects contributes to our overall identity. So, when we talk about diversity, which aspects of a person’s identity are relevant? If a company says that it’s working to increase employee diversity, is that a claim about demographics, psychology, viewpoints, history, or something else entirely? Merely committing to diversifying a student or employee body is uninformative. Almost any sort of initiative is bound to diversify some aspects of the pool and not others. Which traits are we trying to diversify? Without that level of specificity, we’re just using talk of diversity to virtue-signal to others.

Value of diversity

Once we’re clear about which human traits we want to diversify, we then need to answer the more important question of why that sort of diversity is valuable. The question is not “Is diversity valuable?” That question doesn’t make sense. Rather, the question is whether diversity of race or gender or viewpoint (or whatever) is valuable. We can answer the value question only after we’ve specified which sort of diversity we’re after.

Taking a cue from the ancient Greeks, things can be good in one of three ways. Things that are intrinsically good are just good as they are. It’s not that they are good because they get you some further thing. For example, pleasure is intrinsically good. We want pleasure for what it is and not for any other reason. Intrinsic goods are their own rewards.

Other things are instrumentally good. They aren’t good in-and-of-themselves. They are good because they get you something else. Money is instrumentally good. Almost no one wants money just for itself. Instead, we want money because it gets us other things.

Finally, some things are informationally good. They aren’t intrinsically good, and they aren’t instruments that provide us with some additional thing. Instead, they provide us with information. A functioning fuel gauge is informationally good. It’s not intrinsically good to have a functioning gauge, and it doesn’t “do” anything beyond provide you with information. But it’s valuable for that reason alone.

So, what’s so great about any particular sort of human diversity? Since there’s no such thing as diversity per se, I’ll focus on diversity of gender in higher education. Think of it as a case study, of sorts. But no matter which sort of diversity we set as a goal and which industry we’re talking about, we should be clear about why that particular sort of diversity is valuable.

The value of gender diversity in higher education

Some people probably think that having a gender-diverse faculty, staff, or student body is intrinsically good. We should work hard to craft a population that reflects worldwide gender diversity and let that be its own reward. Even if it brings no further goods, it’s just an intrinsically good thing to have a population that is diverse in this way.

I know why someone might say this, but I don’t think it’s true. How could mere variety—in and of itself—be an intrinsically valuable thing? It’s valuable for Baskin Robbins to have 31 flavors. But that’s because having a lot of flavors makes it more likely that you’ll meet your customer’s preferences. It’s not intrinsically better to have 31 flavors instead of 14. It’s the same with your faculty, staff, or student body. If they are really producing all of the same goods and information as a less gender diverse faculty, staff, or student body, then there’s no reason to prefer the one over the other. Diversity itself isn’t intrinsically valuable.

In my experience, most people who are challenged to explain the intrinsic value of diversity quickly retreat to the view that diversity is instrumentally valuable. For example, consider biodiversity. Many people think that biodiversity is valuable. But when pressed, most of us would come up with an explanation for that value: it’s good to have a wide array of species in an ecosystem because it promotes the stability of the ecosystem, contributes to the health of other plants and animals, provides valuable experiences to human observers, and so on. Those are all instrumental goods. Given this, we ought to concede that biodiversity is instrumentally valuable rather than intrinsically valuable.

The same goes for diversity in an academic setting. When I tell my faculty peers that I don’t think that gender diversity is intrinsically valuable, they look at me as if I’m a heretic. But I think that many of my colleagues are really instrumentalists about gender diversity. When I ask them why they think gender diversity is important, they quickly point out good things that it produces.

It’s far more plausible to think that gender diversity in the academy is valuable for instrumental reasons. A gender-diverse faculty, staff, and student body is more likely to produce certain goods than a less gender-diverse group. Here are some examples of the sorts of goods often posited by defenders of gender diversity.

First, a gender-diverse academy is likely to be more effective at finding truth. Research and discovery are top goals for any university, and there is reason to think that a faculty and student body that is diverse in terms of gender is likely to home in on the truth in ways that less diverse institutions will not. There is reality. And there are perceivers. Reality determines what’s true, but perceivers see only a limited slice of this truth. Each of us sees the world from our own limited and biased perspectives. And that means that people in different contexts will pick up on different truths. This is the important lesson of feminist epistemology: who you are affects what you know. Given this, a faculty that lacks gender diversity is more likely to miss important truths and defend mistaken views. A diversity of perspectives on the world is an important antidote to a parochial myopia.

Second, a gender-diverse academy is more likely to produce academic benefits to students. Aside from research, teaching is the top goal of a university. And there is reason to think that having a gender-diverse faculty produces student benefits. The argument for this conclusion relies on role model effects. Briefly, the idea is that having teachers who share important aspects of your identity is important for your academic development. These people serve as role models that effect students in various ways.

It’s obviously a big question whether such role model effects exist, but some empirical research bears it out. On one hand, there is little evidence of role model effects on grades when it comes to gender (though some evidence of role model effects on grades when it comes to race). But on the other hand, there is evidence of gender role model effects in the appreciation of math and science in grade school (including in other countries), the decision to attend college, and the decision to study in a particular field in college (though this likely varies across fields). In sum, there is some evidence that a gender-diverse faculty is instrumentally good for teaching and student success.

Third, some might argue for gender diversity initiatives in the academy as a way to right a past wrong. (A similar case has been made for racial diversity.) In that sense, ensuring gender diversity in the university is a kind of reparations. That’s an instrumental good. It’s the same argument offered in defense of affirmative action programs in college admissions: promoting gender diversity is a way of ameliorating unjust past discrimination women have suffered.

Whether this argument is sound or not, notice again that gender diversity isn’t intrinsically valuable. It’s valuable only insofar as it secures the good of reparations. And as applied to higher education, the argument will have little purchase in the context of the student body (since just over half of full-time students in the US are women) and not much more in the context of faculty (since just under half of full-time faculty in the US are women).

The main point is that in each of these cases, gender diversity itself isn’t valuable to the academy. Instead, gender diversity produces other good things that are valued by the academy. It’s no different in government or business. For example, there’s some evidence to suggest that gender diversity improves board decision-making, reduces employee turnover, boosts sales, and increases net revenue.

There’s one final way in which gender diversity might be valuable in higher education. It might be informationally valuable. Having a gender-diverse set of faculty, staff, or students might provide us with important evidence about the processes of the institution. In that sense, gender diversity might be like a fuel gauge—an imbalance tells us that something is wrong with our systems.

For example, while it’s true that women make up half of the teachers in the American academy, they are over-represented in faculty with contingent contracts and under-represented in the top rank of full professor. That might tell us something important about the way we hire for positions or promote faculty within the academy. Indeed, that sort of imbalance is one of the best sorts of evidence for an injustice in the system. Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a gender imbalance. But it might be informationally useful.

Of course, the imbalance doesn’t pinpoint where the process failed. It might well lie outside of the university’s control (for example, social pressures earlier in the job candidate pipeline). This is like a warning indicator in a vehicle which tells you there’s a problem, but it doesn’t tell you where the problem lies. Only a mechanic can do that.

The takeaway

When an institution sets diversity goals, it should be clear about which human features they want to diversify and why that sort of diversification is valuable. Without clear answers to these questions, diversity initiatives are likely to be futile—we won’t be able to prioritize the goods of diversity against other sorts of goods and we won’t know whether we’ve made progress towards our goals. To see how it might go wrong, consider a few closing examples.

Suppose an institution cares only about diversity of viewpoint. In that case, hiring a staff that is diverse in terms of gender or race won’t count as progress. On the flip side, if a university says that gender diversity is important because gender diversity makes it more likely that we’ll find the truth, then parity of reasoning implies that the university should care about viewpoint diversity, too. On that score, it makes no sense to worry about an imbalance of male faculty and not an imbalance of politically liberal faculty.

Or suppose an institution views racial diversity as good in the sense of reparations. If so, would hiring wealthy, international faculty of color count as progress? There are similar concerns when it comes to role model effects. If a university wants to hire people of color for role model effects, it needs to ensure that it hires faculty that students readily identify with. On that score, Elizabeth Warren won’t count as a role model for Native American students regardless of what her paperwork says.

Finally, suppose the value of diversity is informational. On that way of looking at it, artificially manipulating the diversity of faculty or students won’t correct the underlying problem. For example, the ratio of men to women among college students is at an all-time low (only 40 percent of college students are men). But having admissions create an affirmative action program for men won’t fix the underlying problems with how our K-12 system treats boys. That would be a way of ignoring the important information provided by the lack of gender diversity among students.

In sum, we’ve been too quick to throw the word “diversity” about as if we know what we’re talking about. But there’s no single reason why we should care about it. There’s only diversity of this or that, and multifarious reasons for thinking that some of its incarnations are valuable. Those subtleties should matter as institutions of higher education set their strategic plans.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/10/06/understanding-the-meaning-of-diversity/
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I’m sure Justin P. McBrayer is the nicest guy in the world, but he is a Professor of Philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. And Fort Lewis College is part of the Colorado State University system. So it is a gubmint university. So it is based on force, because government is force.

So, if Fort Lewis College has diversity programs those programs are based on forcing race, gender, cultural, and religious diversity using the power of government. I notice from the College website that the College has operates under a “1911 mandate to provide a tuition-free education for qualified Native Americans.” By force.

Not good.

And reparations! I’m just an autodidact – I don’t know nuttin’ – but I understand reparations to be a part of revenge culture – e.g., wergild – which obtains in societies before the development of law for the adjudication of wrongs. Let’s go back to the Stone Age, chaps.

Not good.

Tell you what. When our liberal overlords actually permit a racist-sexist-homophobe bitter clinger like me to be a Professor of Philosophy – even way out in the sticks in Durango, Colo. – and encourage me to teach my deplorable narrative, then I’ll start to believe in diversity.

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Any chance you’re willing to assess his argument by way of reason rather than by way of his identity?

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The questions “Diversity of what?” and “Why would that sort of diversity make the holiday better?” are really obvious and should come to mind as soon as “diversity” is talked about. However, the woke crowd have taken ownership of these words now and have narrowed and specified their meaning. If you do not use them in the way they prescribe then you are ‘out’ and they will not engage with you.

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Good essay. I won’t reference it, but there is pretty good evidence that a team of diverse members with above average abilities will outperform a team of high flyers which is not diverse, at most, but not all, problem-solving tasks. This may shock some defenders of meritocracy, but it probably won’t surprise those with a more than passing familiarity with the dismal science, economics. Heterogenous economics always trumps homogeneity in almost every area other than when we look at high levels of social trust and social capital which occurs in culturally homogenous communities and countries.

It’s about the strength of individuality. Take any group of people with a varying degree of abilities, and the broader the total range of their abilities and the more likely they are to succeed, providing we are not selecting for an extremely narrow and specific type of task. Plus, homogeneity lends itself to intellectual uniformity, which in turn leads to that thing which can be truly catastrophic and that all senior managers dread- groupthink- the anathema of a situation where everyone in the room endorses a terrible idea, because they all think the same way.

But when one delves into the literature of diversity and performance it becomes clear that, in the modern sense, diversity is too narrowly construed. Whilst variations in gender and race can be valuable, it is just as important to consider variations by age, social class, viewpoint, culture and life experience. A car mechanic is likely to provide valuable insights into a robotic AI project for the simple reason that he is more likely to possess a working knowledge of electrics and electronics, and have a high aptitude for physical engineering.

Another aspect of diversity which is seldom discussed is the extent to which selecting for one arbitrary group characteristic can necessarily select for another, as a second order effect. It has long been known that several of the core Democratic constituencies tend towards a higher degree of social conservatism. African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be religious and centre discussions on the importance of family within their own communities (although in some instances they are likely to avoid the topic with white liberals and in public more broadly).

Especially in situations where normal viewpoint diversity across the political spectrum is lacking, this reintroduction of viewpoint diversity by other means can be incredibly valuable. In a business setting or a political one, having someone who is socially conservative in the room can be incredibly valuable. An example would be defund the police movements. It tends to surprise white liberals that even after George Floyd, the majority of African Americans still want roughly roughly the same levels of policing. What will be of less surprise is that the vast majority do support police reform.

The greater social conservatism of Latinos and African Americans stems from class distinctions, or along socio-economic. It’s because they are not as likely to be as W.E.I.R.D. as white people- which is an acronym for Western, Educated and from Industrial, Rich and Democratic countries. Moral Foundations are also incredible important in this sense, because much of the division between socially conservative and Left-liberal is to be found in socio-economic background, and especially in terms of parental education level and peer group socialisation.

And there’s the rub- because especially in certain academic fields there is an extent to which particular subjects select for people further up the socio-economic spectrum. If you come from a middle or upper middle economic background, you are far more likely to want to train or educate in a field which is personally fulfilling, rather than financial rewarding, and if you were born into lower or lower middle economic circumstances you are going to want to study a subject which provides a well-remunerated career. So social conservatives (regardless of political affiliation) within African American and Latino communities are far more likely to select for engineering, the law, medicine, business and other more lucrative fields, whilst their wealthier counterparts are going to want to study social science, psychology and political science.

This is crucial, because it removes the natural viewpoint diversity or heterodoxy which arises from class diversity. It likely helps account for many of the replication crises we are seeing in psychology or the social sciences. Similarly it robs Democrats of the ability to correct for many of the blind spots which they possess. A focus on equity or inequality may play well on a college campus or in socially elite circles, but if you were going to pitch a concept which plays well to anyone who isn’t in the top 33% of household income it would probably be better to focus on fairness, a rigged system and poverty- or especially on how to provide people with access to economic opportunity.

This has particularly provide implications in terms of the selection of political candidates. Amongst white liberals, especially suburban moms she enjoyed enormous support, but amongst African Americans she enjoyed far less support than many other candidates in the Democratic primaries. As the presumptive nominee to replace Joe Biden as a presidential candidate Kamala Harris needs to create distance between herself and certain culturally progressive Democratic policies. In particular it appears that Democrats are losing the battle for hearts and minds in relation to CRT in schools, especially with Latino and Asian voters.

For Democrats, the message is clear- if they want to retain or regain votes in their core constituencies, they need to cut the cultural progressivism which is so popular in educated cosmopolitan liberal circles, and instead focus on popular areas like a minimum wage, childcare/child tax credits and universal pre-k.

For Republicans the message is equally clear, they need to hammer home of CRT in schools which have evidenced segregation by race. Whilst continuing to support charters, they also need to propose legislation which allows parents the chance to apply to the schools of their choice, and also bars schools from selecting students on the basis of locality- instead selection could be based upon all manner of metrics from discipline and attendance, to behaviour and specific academic or non-academic abilities. Perhaps the most important emphasis should be upon personal economics- did you and your friends enjoy greater economic opportunity under Trump or Joe Biden. Which parts of the country have grown economically, and which have suffered?

In general, Democrats need to listen less to the top 20% of the socio-economic spectrum who represent their thought leaders, commentariat and policy makers and listen more to the other 80% of Americans. The same is true of Republican but in another way, they need to stop being a party which represents donors and become one which represents people. Of course, the same is true of Democrats these days- especially with the corporate centre-Left- but it just less readily apparent, given their suite of policy platforms.

Diversity matter, but in America it’s becoming more about socio-economic and the attitudes which emerge by class as a result, than it is about race and gender- at least underneath the patina of conventional politics. Most Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that they have a class system, but the social stratification which has been occurring for the last thirty years, is becoming more ossified by the day.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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I suspect the resistance to diversity initiatives is more about the very reasonable fears of it being prioritised over merit, discrimination & whether it’s only used for virtue signalling/marketing rather than an inability to understand its value. However if it truly is a white elephant surely it won’t prove as advantageous productivity/profit wise & will eventually no longer be in favour. But if it is as successful as it’s claimed to be then we’ll just have to get used to it. Merit…live by the sword die by it….

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I think the chain of logic is something along these lines, as mentioned by the author: diversity is informationally good because it reflects a lack of discrimination, bias, and bigotry in the department. If your faculty was not diverse, it would almost certainly be attributable to discrimination and bias, so your diversity levels are like a fuel gauge, telling you how much bigotry you’ve got left in the tank. I would imagine they also think of it as an instrumental good, with the hope being that bigotry and bias cannot flourish in a diverse environment, because the diverse will push back against it. E.G., you can prevent anti-Asian discrimination from taking root by keeping the appropriate number of Asians on staff, because they’ll snuff it out whenever it appears. This is why, in practice, you often see the “diverse” members of a particular group act more like commissars than colleagues. Witness the Larry Summers episode at Harvard. He mentions reasons why it’s tough to find women for high end STEM gigs, and there are an army of women calling for his head. Whether what he had to say was true or not was irrelevant.

With that in mind, I think I have to take issue with the author’s idea that “a gender-diverse academy is likely to be more effective at finding truth.” When the diverse are granted a license to be parochial and myopic (as they are when they’ve got their commissar hats on), which it seems is de rigueur these days, diversity is likely to retard the search for truth rather than aid it (am I still allowed to use the word ‘retard’ in this fashion?). But that seems to have ceased being the function of the university system in this country a long time ago, anyway.

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This is already happening. Its a constant complaint amongst activists that many of the companies who mouth woke pieties are still primarily full of white males. And in companies that are not, the “diversity” often comes in the way of Asian or Indian males.

I’ve been in plenty of meetings as a hiring manager where we talk about how to increase our hiring “diversity”. Frankly in most (not all) white-collar professions there is a dearth of Black and Latino applicants. While a company may wish from a strategic level to increase their minority hiring, at the end of the day department managers are judged by how well their departments perform. Therefore few Managers feel secure enough to hire a minority candidate over a more qualified non-minority candidate.

So most of the diversity hiring decisions end up being “If two of the candidates are about equal, then hire the minority”. This is still wrong, but its also not terribly important because finding good employees is already a challenge. Finding two at once is pretty rare.

Besides, when it happens I suppose you need to use something to break the tie. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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Actually, I think a lot of his ideas are reasonable. I’m all in favor of diversity. I’m just not in favor of diversity as a political power project.

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