Recently, I was watching an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher”, in which Maher was having a conversation with Colorado governor Jared Polis and the exchange turned to the “debate” on whether diversity has become a priority over merit or over “facts.” I personally found this debate infuriating because the “fact” is that diversity does not come at the expense of merit but, rather, there is often more merit because of diversity.
So often when diversity is discussed or prioritized, there is backlash that the best people are not being chosen because there is an emphasis on diversifying the workforce...which is flat out wrong. So, how can we respond when people take this diversity v. merit stance?
Breaking down why this is a myth
First and foremost, it is important to break down the fact that there is bias in the supposition that diversity comes at the expense of merit. That idea inherently assumes that diversity and quality cannot go hand-in-hand but are mutually exclusive—you either get one or the other.
But, in fact, we are lacking quality in our talent pools and in the people making it to the top of our organizations because we lack diversity in those pools. Let me explain.
One way I like to squash this “debate” is by considering every demographic group on separate normal distributions (bell curves) of performers. Everyone in every category falls somewhere on the curve but the “best” performers are those that are in the tail all the way to the right, or the top ~10%, or the portion in blue on the graph to the left below.
Obviously, organizations want to select the top 10% of applicants into any open role. But when we narrow our conception of the best to only White men, for example, we can get some top performers but by missing the other groups, we miss out on excellent talent. If we only select the green portion of the top performers shown in the graph to the right, we miss out on top talent from other groups.
Unless you have the biased opinion that white men are inherently smarter, more talented and capable, you would assume that capabilities and potential are evenly distributed across various demographic groups.
Therefore, if we had a purely merit-based system, then achievement would also be equally distributed, representing the broad diversity of our society. Since that’s not the case—white men are consistently overrepresented in the highest levels of our organizations—it shows that we’ve never really had a strictly merit based system.
We miss out on top that section of the bell curve for all the other groups, so we’re not selecting that top 10% of Black women, people with disabilities, or trans and non-binary folks, for example, who could help our organizations excel.
In his popular HBR article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic discusses this concept as it relates to men entering leadership positions at a higher rate than women. Chamorro-Premuzic points out that men are often rewarded for displays of confidence as indications of leadership potential. We often assume this confidence translates to success but that is not often the case. Men are “rewarded for their incompetence” while “women are punished for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.” This is just one example of how diversity is an imperative for merit rather than a detriment.
It is also important to break down the “merit vs. diversity” debate to consider how it considers one person to be diverse, checking the “diversity box” which then leads to tokenism. Tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a marginalized group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly; or when ONE person unfairly represents an ENTIRE group.”
Instead, diversity should always be considered at the group-level. No one person can be diverse, but a group, team, or organization can (and should be) diverse.
By missing out on top workers in the normal distribution of performance, organizations miss out on top talent and do not reap the benefits of diversity. The debate is not merit or diversity but merit because of diversity.
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