Last Sunday morning, BBC 1 staged a debate that turned into a fierce to-and-fro over the extent to which principles of diversity should influence recruitment decisions. On the one side, there was a female entrepreneur saying that her company was there to make a profit for shareholders and not to be a showcase for diversity. So when she appointed people to her company, she said, her decisions were based purely on merit, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual identity and other diversity criteria. I'm guessing, but I can imagine she manages her outfit rather like Marissa Mayer runs Yahoo, that is without undue reverence for the received wisdom on subjects such as telecommuting.
Another discussion participant argued that one of the reasons for the meltdown in the banking sector in 2008 was the lack of diversity among management, along the lines of "if it hadn't been dominated by white middle-class males from privileged backgrounds, the crisis would not have occurred." And then there were the inevitable references to statistics showing that diverse teams always out-perform homogeneous ones and that certain professions are largely populated by this or that group.
What do I think? WelI, I believe that one of the biggest risks to societal progress is the belief that we can solve the diversity issue through rules and legislation.
To avoid misunderstandings right from the outset, let me say that there have always been occasions when governments – and the people – have had to take action against social injustice and discriminatory practices. The struggle for universal suffrage and civil rights are just two cases in point.
But I don't think you can legislate for diversity by introducing quotas into recruiting practices. Doing so does not ensure that the right person lands the job or that the team performs better. On the contrary, it can lead to mediocrity in performance and even resentment on the part of those who feel they have been passed over because they don't match up to certain diversity criteria.
Instead, governments should ensure greater equality of opportunity for everyone across all those barriers in society. Examples that immediately spring to mind would be children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, disadvantaged ethnic minorities or girls in some of the world's developing economies.
This will obviously entail spending far more on education. However, over time this kind of investment in people's futures will in increase their chances of finding good jobs and should also broaden the diversity of the global workforce.
Whether all this happens in practice, of course, will depend on employers who can judge whether a job applicant brings valuable diversity of thought to the table, rather than just diversity of the superficial kind. It will depend on recruiters mature and experienced enough to assess, for example, whether a person has the kind of emotional intelligence necessary to interact smoothly with other members of the team.
So how should we define diversity? Does a lack of it constitute a major risk and, more importantly, what can we do to compensate?