Commentary

Tom Evslin: If we’re all the same, who needs diversity?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom Evslin, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. This post first appeared on his blog, Fractals of Change.

“Diversity in schools and workplaces is crucial,” I remember being told, “because people from different ethnicities, places, economic situations and men and women have different points of view, different ways of looking at a problem.” My experience has been that diversity does bring all these benefits and more. Problems and opportunities are best attacked from diverse points of view.

But I have a question: If we’re all the same, then what does diversity mean? Why would it have any benefits?

An engineer at Google named James Damore wrote a memo on a company forum listing some statistical differences between men and women and giving reasonable although not conclusive sources for the differences he cites. He was supporting his argument that part of the reason there are more male programmers at Google than female is that women statistically may not want this job as often as men do. He’s been fired “for perpetuating stereotypes” even though he conscientiously pointed out that statistical differences between groups cannot and should not be used for judging individuals. It has become impermissible to talk about the differences which are one of the main benefits of diversity!

The Orwellian reality is that “diversity” has become a code word for uniformity of results. Somehow every subset of every profession should have a proportion of men and women, different ethnic groups, and different gender identities which exactly matches the population. I think we Jews are underrepresented in the NBA just because statistically we are not very tall and don’t jump as well as certain other ethnic groups.

Even more specifically I know that stereotypes and social pressure discourage some girls from pursuing “scientific” subjects and that these girls and society as a whole both lose by this stereotyping.

 

Like Damore, I have to acknowledge that stereotypes which arise from some combination of statistical differences and prejudice do often prevent individuals from getting the consideration they deserve for jobs (and country club memberships). Like Damore I think this discrimination is wrong. Even more specifically I know that stereotypes and social pressure discourage some girls from pursuing “scientific” subjects and that these girls and society as a whole both lose by this stereotyping. One of my great pleasures as a grandfather is talking science and math with my granddaughters, both of whom have aptitudes for these subjects.

Even more important, though, I have tried to teach my children and grandchildren that nothing is unthinkable. What if fewer women than men want to be programmers? What if that’s the truth? We could look at the job and ask why it’s unattractive to many women. If the answer is that there’s a men’s club of programmers who make women uncomfortable, that culture should change.

But if the answer, or part of the answer, is that more (remember, we’re talking statistics) men than women are willing to (or want to) work in a job with minimal social interaction, why shouldn’t that choice be honored for those who make it? I’ve been programming for 57 years. Many of the great programmers I know have borderline Asperger’s syndrome. Many more males are diagnosed with Asperger’s (and other autisms) than females. My point, and Damore’s, is that there is a spectrum of statistical differences between genders and so expecting all genders be equally represented in each profession is a dumb goal and leads to reverse discrimination and other dumb decisions.

Individual choice as well as individual aptitude should determine choice of profession. Opportunity, of course, must be equal; real results will vary.

Before judging Damore one way or the other, please read his paper . It’s interesting and well written.

Also please see an excellent op-ed in the New York Times by David Brooks: “Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.

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  • J. Paul Sokal

    Excellent article. Thanks for the link to the original document.

  • David Usher

    Bias, unfortunately, is part of the human condition as are difference in skills and aptitude. Life is unfair because we are not all endowed equally. The best we can hope for is equal opportunity so that individuals can make personal choices according to their preferences.

    Tom hits the nail on the head on the value of differences and diversity in the business world. What cannot and should not be guaranteed are equal outcomes.

  • Peter Langella

    I tried to read this with an open mind. I tried to find some sort of point. But you completely lost me when you used the term “reverse discrimination.” There is no such thing as reverse discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination. And while it can be perpetrated by any group against any group, the reality is that straight, white men (yes, I am one) are the active perpetrators in our society, and it’s been this way since 1492. Racism is real, sexism is real, homophobia is real, xenophobia is real, etc. Any claim to the contrary is only working to further the covert acts of this prejudice and injustice.

  • Edgar Stout

    I am shocked that this informative and truthful article was allowed to be published by Vermont’s mainstream media.

  • GabrielBrunelle

    It is seems to me that the question which is your title answers itself. You mention some of the benefits of diversity in your opening paragraph. However, I think fair hiring practices are about more than the fact that diversity gives us ingenuity, versatility, and resilience. They’re about social justice. I think your question also contains a falsehood. We are obviously not all the same. So when a work environment is homogeneous, it is not speaking to the diversity inherent in our larger environments. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think employers are legally beholden to fill diversity quotas. I think they may gain financial benefits by doing so; and they are certainly beholden not to illegally discriminate against minorities who choose to apply. Those civil rights-based policies were created to enable marginalized populations to enter into places where they would otherwise be kept out, thereby changing the statistical data of which you seem to be so fond. As you say: Opportunity must be equal. If someone honestly doesn’t want to do a certain type of work then I assume, if they have a choice, they will not apply for that work. I’m not sure exactly what’s the point of this article.

  • Peter Langella

    You seem to be trying to argue both sides at once.

  • Ken McPherson

    It’s important to note that MIT is currently 34.8% white. Harvard is 43.4% white. Both have become “minority schools.” And yet, the Asian students are probably right. I wonder what the whites who claim “reverse discrimination” will say if they achieve race-neutral admissions to our top schools only to find that the white proportion in incoming classes dips to – perhaps – 25%. Bet that we start hearing about affirmative action for whites.

    • Christopher Daniels

      Where are you getting those numbers? Maybe you’re looking at older data. I looked at MIT’s web page (http://web.mit.edu/facts/enrollment.html) and find that the student body for the 2016-2017 calendar year is 11,376 and comprised as follows:

      White: 8,047
      African American: 357
      American Indian or Alaska Native:13
      Asian American: 1,887
      Hispanic:1,071
      Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 1

      The percentage of whites is 70.7%, not 34.8%.

    • Ken McPherson

      I thought that I might not have been clear. I was trying to make a very simple point. As admissions decisions were required to focus more on qualifications and less on diversity, the white student population has decreased significantly as a percentage of the total student population at some of our greatest universities. When students increasingly are chosen on the basis of qualifications rather than ethnic diversity, the proportion of minority students admitted goes up, not down. As supporting evidence, I offered the following evidence:
      Harvard is a predominantly minority university. I will agree that my source was weak, but even 48% fulfills my statement.
      The MIT student population in academic year 2016 – 2017 was 34.8% white. http://web.mit.edu/ir/pop/students/diversity.html. Note: These statistics were compiled on October 25, 2016 for the academic year 2016-2017. The Registrar Office’s “Y Report” and international enrollment statistics exclude all exchange/visiting and study abroad students unless otherwise noted, but include all special students. Eight early thesis are included in the “graduate” and two study abroad students are included in the “undergraduate” category above, but not in the Registrar Office’s Y Report.
      In addition, the Caltech student population was 29% white in academic year 2016 – 2017 (https://www.registrar.caltech.edu/academics/enrollment)
      In summary, those who claim reverse discrimination – diversity-inspired discrimination in favor of minorities and against the majority – have to explain why greater reliance on academic qualifications has led to a greater, not lesser, role for minorities. The more we rely on academic qualifications, the bette minorities do.

  • Bill Ketchin

    This is news to me. A reasonable company would address the issue with the employee to find out what prompted the statements, if there were similar attitudes with other employees, then discuss and implement what actions to take to improve the workplace going forward. This seems more like a purge of differing opinions but I only know what has been made public.

    Obviously you misunderstood my personal example. The point was I didn’t have any interest in being right handed so I wouldn’t be looking for a job that required me to be right handed.
    The same situation with any gender. If the interest isn’t there to be a in a specific field in the first place there won’t be that many in that field and the other gender will dominate.
    My assertions about women are based on over 30 years of trying to get female engineers interested in explosives manufacturing. Over the years I have been told, by female engineers, that blowing stuff up is a “guy thing”.
    I’m sorry you feel I’m being judgemental, but I’m not looking for a fight.

    • David Bell

      Alright, glad to have been informative. No major company solicits employees to send out company wide memos making offensive statements about whole groups of employees. When an employer wishes to gauge response to policy, they provide either moments to do so with specific personnel in private or through anonymous feedback.

      If the employee honestly believed he could deliberately insult his female colleagues with no consequences, he was deluded.

      Telling any group what they are or are not interested in is as deliberately insulting when you do so as it was when Damore did it. You are not, in any way shape or form entitled to tell anyone what they are or are not interested in. Nor is Google, or anyone else, trying to force women (or left handed people) to do any job they do not want to do. That was the crux of your question above, and that is what I responded to.

  • Mary Reed

    I read the Damore memo, including his citations for his points and conclusions. The memo was more manifesto than fact. There are males who have problems with females; Damore writes as if he may be one of that group. I would not want a computer program developed without good data input. This memo was not good science, it was not researched, it did not stem from good data, and it demonstrated a clear, unsupported prejudice from start to finish. It was not ‘reasonable’. If his actual work products at Google were of similar ilk, it’s possible this ‘document’ may have been an opportunity to terminate an employee whose job performance was less than satisfactory. BTW, I do concur with some of your stated concerns about the concept of ‘diversity’ in the workplace. A lot of organizations, and Google may be one, seem to use it more as ‘precious language’ than as having a functional grasp of the actual concept. Diversity is far more than gender, skin color, ethnicity, physical and cognitive differences, religion, political persuasions, etc., etc. Once one has a grasp of that part of the concept, it must then apply functionally to the workplace.

  • John Fairbanks

    Ironic timing, this piece.