What is so great about Diversity?

Regarding the January 23, 2010 Wall Street Journal Report on diversity on company boards, the central premise seems to be captured in the Editor’s Note:

“More diversity means more voices, different perspectives, and, especially, fresh ideas.”

The editor goes on to note that the authors of this issue’s cover story don’t dispute any of this.  Moreover, this central premise pervades the report.

One article, entitled, “Why Diversity Can Backfire On Company Boards,” does hint at a dissenting view, introducing this sobering thought: “Unfortunately, few boards that pursue diversity ever see the wished-for return.  Many report no significant change in their performance . . .”   Perhaps stunned by their own audacity, the authors then provide a list of seven possible reasons why diversity has not proven to be the magic elixir, but the list does not include the possibility that “more voices, different perspectives, and fresh ideas” are not necessarily indicative of  better voices, perspectives, or ideas.

If the Report is intended as social science, why should it not employ scientific methods? The mere assertion that diversity is a good thing, because it produces more voices or perspectives or ideas, is not exactly indicative of empirical methods of analysis.  Why not consider the possibility that a group chosen on the basis of diversity is not likely to be as capable as one chosen on the basis of the actual capabilities of the members?  If the point is that diversity is seen as a desirable end, in and of itself, whether for political or other reasons, then let us at least be candid about it, and abandon the pretense that we seek diversity because we consider it to be a better indicator of capability than all extant methods of directly measuring capability?  Perhaps the real world is trying to teach us something – “Many report no significant change in performance.”  Perhaps the best board, selected on the basis of merit, would also prove to be the most diverse board; if it did not, why should a company have to settle for something less than the most capable board?

[submitted to mecmoss.com 10 Feb 2012]

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