Why Diversity Increases Meritocracy

Too often, diversity and meritocracy are presented as opposites, when in fact, the two go hand in hand.

The grand irony is that many of those who use the concept of meritocracy to argue against greater diversity are in fact working against the interests of a true meritocracy.

The biggest logical fallacy that most pro-“meritocracy” advocates make is assuming that the current status quo reflects the natural/objective order of things.

If you assume that the status quo reflects the rewards of true meritocracy, by definition, any change to the status quo reflects a retreat from meritocracy.

This core assumption is fatally flawed, and it is easy to provide numerous counterexamples.

In 1946, Kenny Washington became the first African-American to sign a contract with an NFL team.  Today, nearly 70% of NFL players are African-American.

Since professional sports teams are evaluated based on wins and losses on the field of play, they are arguably the truest meritocracy in our society.  Are we to assume that before 1946, African-Americans lacked football aptitude, but developed these skills in the decades since?

Ah, the pro-“meritocracy” advocates might say, but that was due to racism!


Did the NBA become less meritocratic when its player demographics shifted from predominantly Jewish to predominantly African-American?

Did Major League baseball become less meritocratic when its player demographics shifted from 100% Caucasian to 30% Latino?

The point is that it is highly unlikely that any field of endeavor is a perfect meritocracy.  And if professional sports is any guide, increases in diversity tend to correlate with greater meritocracy and performance.

So why do the pro-“meritocracy” forces argue against diversity?  The classic argument is that encouraging diversity requires organizations to “lower their standards.”

What are these much-cited standards?  Years of experience?  Demonstrated ability?  This is a classic Catch-22; how are people who have been shut out of an industry supposed to acquire the experience that would make them worthy of being hired into that industry?

Or perhaps it’s about going to the right college or university?  Despite the fact that the undergraduates in Stanford’s Computer Science department are 30% women, and Harvard Business School’s incoming MBA class is 41.5% women, women still make up far less of the technical staff and leadership levels in corporate America.

Why do young white men have “potential,” while others “lack experience”?

And of course, numerous studies based on publicly available data show that women-led companies perform better financially, and that quotas increasing the number of women politicians increase the average quality of male politicians.  Even if there are other studies that fail to show these effects, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that increasing diversity in an organization leads to poorer performance.  (And if you want to argue that university research and Google’s search engine are biased sources that have a hidden agenda, feel free to provide links to other sources that are scientifically valid; I’m guessing you won’t find them.)

The LSE Business Review article on the effects of gender quotas for politicians is especially revealing.  It’s title is, “Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man.”  The paper argues that the reason increasing the number of women politicians improves the quality of male politicians (as measured by prior income level) is that these new entrants crowd out lower-quality incumbents.

This has two implications, both of which should be noted.  The first is that any losses to incumbents (generally speaking, white men) tend to be felt most by the least-capable incumbents.  If organizations hire more women and underrepresented minorities, or universities admit more women and underrepresented minorities, all other things being equal, they must be hiring or admitting fewer men (or overrepresented minorities–more on this later).  But these losses to incumbents are not evenly spread; the very best men are still hired/admitted.  It’s the marginal men who suffer most.

This might lead diversity advocates to adopt a smug attitude of, “Those incumbents deserved to lose their positions,” which I think is also a mistake.

The second implication of the disproportionate crowding out of lower-tier incumbents is that those men are facing very real losses.  The pain is especially great for those who are just starting out; they suffer the brunt of losses to incumbents, without having the opportunity to benefit from any previous lack of diversity.

It’s not surprising, given this fact, that pro-“meritocracy” advocates from the ranks of the marginal men are opposed the notion of diversity hiring.  Supporting diversity hiring would directly harm their own interests.

Imagine if someone told you that a new policy was going to hurt your financial interests, and that if you spoke up against this policy, you would reveal yourself to be immoral and reactionary.  Would you be upset?  I know I would be.

As much as we would like to believe that every change for the better is win-win, and that life is a non-zero sum game, the fact is that even in a non-zero sum game there are usually individual winners and losers, and simply telling the losers to “suck it up” doesn’t work very well.

So what can we do about these conflicting interests?  There is no magic solution, but I’d like to suggest an approach:

1) Tell the whole truth about diversity, including its downside.  Diversity improves the meritocracy because it increases the total pool of qualified candidates.  Because diverse hires haven’t had the same opportunities to acquire relevant experience and prove their worth, we have to treat diversity as a positive externality, and account for it as an asset in our hiring practices, otherwise we are likely to maintain the status quo.  However, while increasing diversity is better for society/humanity as a whole, it results in poorer outcomes for some, just as globalization and free trade are better as a whole, but distribute costs and benefits unevenly.

2) Be sympathetic to people whose expectations aren’t going to be met.  Acknowledge the distress felt by the marginal players who are being crowded out, rather than treating them as though they personally designed and built the system of bias that resulted in the current status quo.  But acknowledging that distress doesn’t mean halting progress.  Instead, even though they are unlikely to graciously accept this explanation, explain that their pain is helping society/humanity as a whole.

3) Recognize that we are dealing in shades of grey, rather than black and white issues.  We are fortunate to be living in times where many of the worst instruments of discrimination have been eliminated.  Policies like apartheid, separate-but-equal, and the color line have been rightly dismantled and discredited.  Now we live in an era where the instruments of discrimination are subtler and nuanced.  Voter ID laws reflect a reasonable principle of making sure that only legitimate votes are counted, but tend to depress voter turnout among legitimate voters in certain demographics.  Corporate cultures may impede the progress of women and underrepresented minorities, but don’t take the form of absolute barriers like, “Whites only in the executive suite.”  Treating diversity as a crusade (word choice absolutely intentional on my part, with apologies to my Muslim friends) is a mistake.  Specifically, treating these issues as purely black and white, with an inhuman enemy with fewer rights, is counterproductive, not to mention pretty asshole-ish.

Before I conclude, I want to spend a little bit of time on a topic that is almost completely overlooked in all these debates, and one with which I have personal experience, which is the situation faced by Asian-Americans.  As the “model minority,” Asian-Americans are wealthier and better-educated than the average American.  The explanations for these results are varied, but include a cultural emphasis on education, strong family structures, and the fact that many of the Asian-Americans who immigrated to the United States in the post-WW2 era were the highly-educated elites of their countries.  My own parents came to Los Angeles to obtain a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at UCLA, and a Masters in Library Science at USC, which made them fairly typical for their generation of highly-educated Chinese immigrants from Taiwan.  Imagine if the only American expatriates/immigrants in a country were graduates of Stanford and Harvard; what conclusions might the natives of that country draw about the nature of Americans?

Many of the efforts to increase diversity, such as affirmative action, have harmed the economic interests of Asian-Americans.  Within the University of California system, which is barred by law from applying affirmative action to college admissions, 32% of the undergraduates at UCLA, and 42% of the undergraduates at UC Berkeley are of Asian descent.  CalTech, which might be the most selective college in the country, comes in at 41% Asian.  In contrast, these numbers are 23% at Stanford, and 22% at Harvard.

As a result, many might expect Asian-Americans to oppose increasing diversity.  I think that, from a self-interested standpoint, Asian-Americans should be in favor of increasing diversity, but that diversity needs to be tackled at a broader level.

First, affirmative action is not a practice that harms Asian-Americans in favor of African-American/Latino minorities.  Rather, it is a practice that harms Asian-Americans in favor of marginal Caucasian students.  Let’s compare UC Berkeley and Stanford, which are in the same geographic region.  At UC Berkeley, 3% of undergraduates are African-American, and 14% are Latino.  At Stanford, the equivalent numbers are 8% and 13%.  17% and 21% are pretty close; there may be some marginal impact on Asian-American admissions from affirmative action in favor of underrepresented minorities, but it seems small.  In contrast, UC Berkeley is 28% Caucasian, and Stanford is 43% Caucasian.  Conveniently enough, if you do the math, the delta between Asian-Americans at UC Berkeley and Stanford is 42% – 23%, or 19%.  The delta between Caucasians at UC Berkeley and Stanford is 43% – 28%, or 15%.  Add to that the 4% delta between African-American/Latino students between the two schools, and it appears that 15% of the 19% delta (79%) in Asian-American admissions can be attributed to affirmative action discriminating AGAINST Asian-Americans IN FAVOR OF Caucasian applicants.

Second, Asian-Americans continue to be vastly underrepresented in key areas such as elected politics, or the senior management levels of large corporations.  Quick–name the highest-ranking executive of East Asian descent at a major Silicon Valley corporation who wasn’t one of the founders of that corporation!

The proponents of diversity would do well to acknowledge and support the diversity hiring of Asian-Americans, including Asian-American men, despite their “overrepresentation” in the ranks of elite universities and Silicon Valley engineering departments.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to stop using the term “minorities” to refer to “non-white people other than Asians.”

Meanwhile, Asian-Americans would do well to voice their support for diversity initiatives, rather than assuming that those initiatives would be used against them.  Increased diversity hiring will likely harm the economic interests of Asian-Americans in some areas, but those losses are likely to be offset by gains in other areas.

In summary, unless you assume that we are already living in a perfect meritocracy, which is almost certainly a false assumption, increasing diversity ought to increase “true” meritocracy by broadening the pool of qualified people, and thus improve society/humanity as a whole.  However, increasing diversity has uneven effects; some people (e.g. the marginal men) do lose out, and we should treat those people with compassion, rather than blasting them for not graciously accepting policies that act against their self-interest, but not confuse compassion with abandoning good policy.


P.S. I expect that this essay will draw the usual reaction to my political/policy writings; I will be attacked by both sides of the debate for being on the opposing side, and a few folks in the middle will criticize me for mushy indecisiveness.  To all of those people, I say that dealing with issues like this is hard, and that I’m not convinced that I’m some sort of genius that can solve all these problems with Solomon-like wisdom.  I think that everyone could do with a little more hesitancy and empathy for the other side.  And if that isn’t a ringing call to action, so be it.

P.P.S. While this essay was informed by the current Google diversity memo controversy, I didn’t want to focus on that controversy.  I will add the following comments:

  • The diversity memo is correct that shaming people risks creating an ideological echo chamber
  • The memo’s author was very naive; he thought that if he explicitly said he was tackling the extreme position that all differences in outcome are the result of discrimination, and acknowledged that population-level differences are small and tell us little about specific individuals, he would be safe from the echo chamber.  He was wrong.  A similar mistake forced Larry Summers (Sheryl Sandberg’s mentor) to resign as President of Harvard.
  • The fundamental problem with the argument against diversity advanced in the memo is that the author assumes that diversity lacks inherent value.  Otherwise, why would he argue against programs aimed at people of a specific gender or race?  This is the “begging the question” logical fallacy–and it is embarrassing that someone who prides himself on logic fell into this!  Once you make this (false) assumption, the rest of the argument against diversity follows naturally.  But that’s like assuming that compassion lacks inherent value; once you make that assumption, every act of compassion makes no sense.
  • By firing the author of the memo, Google provided evidence that he was correct in his characterization of the company as an ideological echo chamber, and missed out on the opportunity to correct the obvious flaws in his argument.  Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, “First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.  The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”  This strikes me as rank hypocrisy.  Firing the author of the memo would seem to indicate that Google takes a zero-tolerance approach to any discussion of gender differences, which seems to me like it is a clear example of the “intimidation” that Google claims to want to prevent.  Instead of a debate, Google’s actions indicated that expressing the wrong opinions can get you fired.  Go ahead and read the memo; while the author’s arguments are weak and illogical, and he comes off as tone-deaf, it hardly rises to the level of “harassment” and “intimidation” that justifies termination.  Just ask yourself the following question: If the memo hadn’t been leaked, would Google have fired its author?  Yeah, I thought so.  By firing the author, rather than actually addressing his arguments by explaining why diversity is valuable, Google made itself part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  

3 thoughts on “Why Diversity Increases Meritocracy

  1. Chris, thanks for this email, thoughtful as ever.

    a couple thoughts on diversity hiring (I'm a small biz owner btw)

    1: as long as there is discrimination against any group, there can be an economic edge from hiring from that group. I had very interesting experiences hiring in Baltimore for the 12 years I lived there.
    2: don't forget- the makeup of your team sends a message to your customers. I try to hire a crew that reflects the clientele I want to attract.

    In favor of the first point and despite the second, it seems to me the biggest value-hiring opportunities for biz owners these days are folks with criminal records.

    And thanks for that charitable, non-identity-driven take on the googler's screed. I think it's clear the guy didn't intend offense. Thanks for making an honest attempt to understand what he was saying, then calmly pointing to flaws you saw in his arguments. How hard is that? Why can't more people do that?

    Ok, see you around!

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    1) I agree that there is an economic edge from hiring members of groups that face discrimination. In terms of hiring employees with criminal records, Northwestern professors did some research in this area and found that employees with criminal records were no more likely to cause problems, and were about 13% more loyal in terms of staying on the job longer. The notable exception was with sales positions, where former criminals were much more likely to be fired for misconduct (make of that what you will).

    2) I also agree that the composition of your team sends a strong message to your customers.

    I'm glad that you are taking advantage of this economic inefficiency and helping ex-convicts to reintegrate into society!

  3. Hey Chris I enjoy your nuanced perspectives (and even occasionally agree with them!). I like that you have a realistic and compassionate outlook on this issue, but I want to focus on the D'amore memo: the only logical flaw you mentioned was begging the question on the intrinsic value of the practice, yet you mentioned the memo was rife with illogical assertions and errors. Would you mind sharing your opinion? As far as I understood the memo, he was ignoring the moral aspect of diversity (which you brought up) and focused solely on the utilitarian value of the practice and then provided solutions to the explicit goal of optimizing Google. Where was he wrong in assessing and balancing diversity solely on a utilitarian basis?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *