Diversity: does it matter?

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

‘Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women’. So argued a Google engineer, James Damore, in a now infamous 10-page document entitled ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’. The memo caused international outrage and Damore was sacked for asking if we should uncritically accept diversity as an incontestable good that should trump all other values. Regardless of whether one agreed with any or all of the author’s arguments – such as the idea that women are underrepresented in Silicon Valley not because of bias and discrimination, but possibly because of psychological differences between the sexes – his appeal for more debate is worth exploring.

Damore certainly took on a sacred cow when he challenged the orthodoxy on diversity, one of the most ubiquitous values in modern society. There is now a growing multi-billion pound ‘diversity industry’, populated by myriad consultants and facilitated by government policies, legislation and funding. All organisations – whether public or private – now have elaborate strategies to both recruit more diverse workforces and accommodate the supposedly different needs of diverse users. Damore is not alone in querying whether enforced hiring targets, quotas and the like are divisive. There are worries about whether the overall effect of treating people differently may fuel a sense of exclusion rather than cohesion and also concerns about tokenism.

For example, despite the recent fuss about the BBC’s gender pay gap amongst its most best-paid presenters, diversity is presented as a core BBC aim. In its Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2016-2020, BBC director-general Tony Hall promises 50 per cent women, 15 per cent black, Asian and other ethnic minorities, and eight per cent each of LGBT and the disabled will be prominent in the areas of staff, leadership and on-screen portrayals. Should organisations be engaged in such demographic number-crunching or employing the best, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation?

Others fear that while diversity training inside organisations is supposed to ‘promote inclusive good relations’, it can be used to police employees’ ‘wrong’ attitudes and their informal interactions with workmates. ‘Unconscious bias’ training, using pseudo-therapeutic techniques, is widely practised, but also said to exacerbate tensions between different identity groups, encouraging people to view innocent interactions through the prism of prejudice.

Beyond the workplace, representing diversity in depictions of the past has become politicised and contentious, with accusations of rewriting history. Christopher Nolan’s widely acclaimed film, Dunkirk, has been criticised for a lack of gender and racial diversity. A review from USA Today’s Brian Tuitt notes ‘the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way’. Meanwhile, there has been a spat between Professors Mary Beard and Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the evidence (or not) for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, in response to a BBC animated film featuring a ‘typical’ Roman family with a black father.

On the world stage, diversity is seen as a standalone medium for change, an antidote to what are seen as backward forces clinging on to outdated national cultures and institutions. Britain’s decision to leave the EU (motto: ‘United in diversity’) is regularly posited as representing an attack on plurality and a retreat from a progressive, diverse Europe, an antidote to national monoculture. When Joe Biden was US vice-president, he received international accolades for arguing that ‘greater diversity, including more women and openly gay soldiers, will strengthen the country’s armed forces’. Diversity was not only seen as the saviour of American militarism, but of the nation itself. Biden stated that ‘tolerance and diversity make America great…The secret that people don’t know is our diversity is the reason for our incredible strength’ with no mention of values usually associated with that nation’s values such its Constitution, liberalism, individual freedom and civil rights. Inevitably, one of the most serious critiques of President Trump is that he is not a champion of diversity.

How far should we go as a society in the pursuit of diversity? Can diversity, with its elevation of particular identities and rights over universal political freedom, create a sense of common loyalty within everything from corporations to counties? Do diversity policies invite a permanent war of cultures, with society increasingly segmented along the lines of identity? How should we strive for fair treatment for all members of society and equal access to jobs without creating discriminatory hiring practices or treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals? If there is discrimination, how can we solve the issue without allowing diversity of political viewpoints and honest debate? Once diversity becomes institutionalised as a political weapon, might it lose its positive potential for opening society up to new ideas?