Do we really want iStock diversity?

Written by Vineeta G - January 27, 2020

Diversity is a hot topic in the world of business these days. Many businesses, especially progressive ones like Certified B Corps, are doing their best to pursue ever higher levels of diversity.

As a female, foreign, ethnic minority company director, I am someone who ticks a few diversity boxes. I should be happy about that, and I am in principle. Yet, I have some concerns that good intentions may be leading to a culture that pursues the wrong type of diversity. As someone who is in the minority, I feel I have a perspective that isn’t always voiced and might not be what you expect.

I don’t agree with “tick box” diversity. This post is about why, and possible ways forward.

Why I don’t agree with tick box diversity

I grew up in India (in a Hindu-Brahmin, well to do, city living, highly educated family). I saw first hand how the quota system corrodes the structure of the society. India is a highly divided society where people are categorised; by status (money), religion, geography, profession and most of all by caste. If you’re not familiar with it, the caste system is essentially a formalised class system. The five classes were the Brahmins (the educators), the Kshatriyas (warriors/rulers/administrators), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers), Shudras (labouring classes) and the tribal people also known as the untouchables. You don’t get to choose your caste and there is no caste mobility. You are born into your parents’ caste, you marry into the same caste, your children are born into the same caste and that’s where you all remain, for better or worse.

Aside from the general issues of judging people on arbitrary categorisation, the caste system presents real issues for society. In an attempt to right past wrongs (and win votes), politicians create benefits and quotas based on castes with the aim of balancing out opportunities across society.

One example is the education system, where a large number of “seats” are allocated to students from the “Untouchables” caste. All this, with the good intention of helping improve education standards among a section of society that previously would not have attended higher education. The problem is that quotas have side effects. Talented students from the Untouchables class are never able to demonstrate their own achievements on a level playing field and aren’t able to earn the respect of their peers in other castes. Furthermore, to win votes, several politicians over time have increased or introduced additional quotas, further limiting the number of seats at Universities available to other castes. This squeezes out many students who have worked hard and achieved good grades and contributes to India’s brain drain as people like me leave for a better life in a country with a more even playing field. The problem with quotas is that however well-intentioned in levelling societies’ playing fields, they tend to simply tilt them in a different direction.

In India, people manipulate their position to fit a tickbox that can help them get the best seats in top-rated universities or that “job for life” in the council. People dig up their old caste certificates to get a seat that is reserved for an underprivileged individual, although some of them are clearly not underprivileged. This leapfrogs them against people who have worked hard, have the talent and the skills but can’t get in because they don’t tick the boxes. The problem is, everyone wants to win!

How does this relate to diversity in the workplace?

We’ve all seen those stock photos of diverse teams. You know the ones, with a older white lady, young white guy, a black girl, a Chinese looking guy, an old guy, and an Indian looking girl. These stock photos are generally well-intentioned to create a sense of diversity, but – let’s be honest – they make us cringe because we know that they have artificially inserted a mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities.

Mixed race team

The question is: if these photos make us cringe, why are we trying to model our businesses on them?

I have been to several events in the past year, read a number of articles and met many people who are extremely proud of the work that they are doing to increase diversity in their workplace, and I am very happy to see that. However, what worries me is the way that they are doing this artificially in their recruitment and HR approaches.

Data is not everything

Particularly in the tech industry, it is a popular maxim that “data is everything”. Forget common sense or intuition: all you need is a big data set and machines to crunch the numbers. Then, you will be granted wisdom through some pretty graphs.

This belief that data is everything has penetrated HR teams, who are now surveying their teams looking to see if they have the perfect mix of genders, ages, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, physical abilities and sexualities. This type of profiling is not just unnecessary, it is invasive. If I am an employee, do you really need to know my sexuality and whether my parents were rich or poor?

But, the biggest problem is not in collecting the data, but why you are collecting the data. What is your plan? If you find that you don’t have enough females or non-binary employees, what then? Like the Indian quota system, anything that you do to intentionally “adjust the balance” will fall into the trap of assuming that you know what the perfect balance is, and into artificially discriminating against people who don’t meet your criteria.

This type of diversity monitoring is even included in the B Corp assessment criteria, compounding the problem by offering “points” for commoditising diversity. At Wholegrain, we have consciously decided to forfeit those points.

Data is a source of knowledge, not wisdom

Diversity statistics, in general, can be really misleading, not just on an individual company basis, but they can be really misleading even on a national level. For example, if you look at national statistics of ethnicity as just one metric, you’ll get average figures. However, if you go to Central London and you look at the statistics there, they’ll be completely different than the statistics in Cornwall. It’s not a problem, it’s just the way it is.

Generic statistics paint an unrealistic picture and unintended consequences

If you conduct an exercise on paper to increase diversity by statistically representing the population of Britain accurately then you’re going to get all sorts of terrible unintended consequences that contradict your own purpose, and mission. It would mean that if you’re running an organisation that’s campaigning to remain in the EU, that you would have to hire people who voted to leave and who vote for the Brexit Party. So, for diversity’s sake, we would need that proportion of Leave and Brexit Party voters in our campaign team, even if your whole mission is about promoting Europe. It makes no sense.

Another example of this is an Indian or Pakistani run corner shop in the area with a large ethnic population having to employ a number of white middle class people to work in the shop.

People are not toys. You don’t need to collect the full set

Discrimination is discrimination

This is where we get to the most controversial part of this topic. It shouldn’t need stating, but discrimination is discrimination. If we decide that we need more women in our workforce and set an intention to do that, whether consciously or subconsciously, we are going to start favouring female applicants. It’s human nature to always try to game the system, and especially in places where we have hard numbers with targets that we are trying to hit, it will be almost impossible for bias not to creep in. Put simply, we are going to start discriminating against men. The same goes for age, ethnicity, sexuality, physical ability and any other criteria you decide to classify people by.

Like in the Indian education system, this is bad for everyone. Nobody wants to feel that they got a job because they ticked the right boxes rather than on their merits, and talented people should not be discriminated against simply because they are too “ordinary”.

I know from personal experience!

It’s often that I get invited to events; to be a part of a panel, or to speak or act as a judge in a competition. It is incredible how often people openly tell me that I have been invited because they “need more diversity”.

On several occasions I received invitations for events, conferences, opportunities to speak where I felt that I wasn’t the right person for the event and I suggested to the organisers that Tom would be better qualified, only to be told that they don’t want Tom because they already have enough white men. Yes, he is rightly peeved!

I know that their intentions are good, but I must admit that it hurts. I feel like they’re not appreciating me for who I am, but are valuing me because of my colour and my gender. It really takes the gloss off the invite. The point is, I would love to take part and share my thoughts and experiences, but I want to take part on my merits and not because I’m “diverse”.

I have benefitted many times from positive discrimination, and in cases where people are extra nice to me and offer me an extra biscuit, I will gladly take the biscuit! After all, everyone should be treated nicely. It’s when positive discrimination starts to creep into things that seriously affect people’s lives and negatively impact others that it becomes a problem, and employment is a classic case.

Appreciate change and difference in people, but don’t feel obliged to find it

Actions become influenced when diversity quotas are introduced. When you say that “you need more disabled people in jobs or we need more women, it doesn’t matter how open one says they are. On some level when they’re writing job descriptions, reviewing applications, or sitting in an interview across from you, in the back of their minds they’re thinking “we need more women”.

When it comes down to it, the correct answer is to treat everyone as an individual, fairly and with respect. We should celebrate their individuality. It doesn’t matter what you do, as soon as you get into categorising people by gender, nationality, skin colour, sexuality, age or physical ability, you’re just creating a culture of discrimination; that’s the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Diverse group of young people pointing in your face
Do you want iStock diversity?

What is the solution?

If you have followed me this far, you’ll see that I am pro-diversity, but anti-discrimination. The question is, how can we increase diversity without unintentionally creating more discrimination?

The answer is simple. To stamp out discrimination in all its forms, including the subtle, subconscious forms, we must create a culture that celebrates individuality and rewards people on their merits, and only their merits.

Diversity is not limited to the things we normally talk about such as gender, age and ethnicity. Diversity is about individuality – differences in experience, in ideas, in beliefs, in what you love and hate, in how you live, and in all those subtle things about you that can’t even be described. The solution to diversity is in treating every single person as a genuine individual, looking at them with a pure and open mind, and not through the lens of the latest HR handbook. Nilofer Merchant describes this concept as “onlyness”.

Forget this obsession with measuring and categorising everybody. “Data” is a source of knowledge but not a source of wisdom.

The mission should be to encourage individuality and appreciate the diversity of mind and body. Not seek it.

Embrace the difference. Become curious.

Diverse group of people