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Debunking the Merit Versus Diversity Myth (using data and science!)

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.