Why Diversity Trumps Equality and The Problem With Quotas

Quotas have been criticised for only resolving issues on the surface level. A better way to drive equality is to recognise the value of diverse points of view.

When you recognise the value of diversity, you automatically create equality.


Diversity quotas have improved representation, but some believe this change has only happened on the surface level. Quotas, many argue, don't address the root of the problem. They don't deal with retention rates or define whether sitting at a table means having someone's voice heard. Moreover, they can be disadvantageous for the very people they aim to help, particularly when they lead to retaliation. Real diversity is about engaging with unique perspectives and different viewpoints, so you can contrast various ideas to make better decisions. If approached right and diversity is seen as something that is valued rather than a bureaucratic game then diversity can, and should, drive equality.


Diversity Quotas Are Not The Answer

When diversity quotas were first introduced, the system had many detractors. The ideal was good: to provide members of specific groups that are subject to systematic biases and disadvantages with fair employment opportunities. The execution, however, soon proved to be limited.


While countries like Norway managed to, for example, increase the number of women on company boards from 3% in 1992 to 40% in 2009, more complex questions arose. If you set quotas for one dimension of diversity, are you possibly harming another one? When you boost female representation in senior positions, are you also addressing the barriers that prevented them from climbing the job ladder in the first place?


Some quotas have also led to retaliation. For example, after French universities mandated quotas for hiring more women into academia, the affected committees actually became significantly less likely to hire females. The quota itself seems to have changed the voting behaviours of men. One of the main issues with diversity quotas is that, as encouraging as they can seem to be, they fail to deal with the root cause of the gaps: our unconscious biases and snap judgments.


What it Really Means to Lack Diversity

The culture of an organisation can hinder its ability to do work effectively. An example cited in Mathew Syed’s fantastic book, “Rebel Ideas” is what happened to one of the most influential institutions of the last 60 years, the CIA. For most of the agency's existence, the majority of agents have been Caucasian, protestant American males - the CIA now recognises that this lack of diversity led to analytical failings during the Iranian revolution and 9/11. If you only employ a specific culture, how can you ever think to make the correct decisions regarding another issues that involve a different culture.


But this isn’t just about hiring people of Islamic faith so we understand the Islamic faith. It’s worse than that if you only employ a team who are clones of one another then their ability to make good decisions is hamstrung from the start.


A Moral Perspective or a Business Decision

The case for diversity in both government and business has usually been made from more of a moral perspective. We frequently hear statements such as "an organisation should reflect their community", but there is more to strategic change than niceness. There can actually be immense value in working with people that think differently, and we shouldn't underestimate the advantages of a truly diverse team.


Still Not Representative

Institutions that established quotas have usually taken pride in the noticeable changes to their structures. Some authors have argued these organisations are so busy congratulating themselves that they have stopped worrying about whether they are retaining the staff they hire. Moreover, simply including more women and minorities in the room doesn't fix the problems caused by homogeny. In 2020, of the about 30% of female executive directors in FTSE 100 companies, 97% of them were white.


Diversity of Backgrounds vs Diversity of Thought

Our workplace culture needs to embrace a diversity of backgrounds that also includes diversity of thought. After all, having minority staff present in a room and making sure their voices are heard are entirely different things. New recruits, in particular, might be scared of expressing their ideas (especially if they see themselves as the "diversity hire"). When Gucci decided to launch a racially insensitive jumper on their website or Burberry to sent a model down the runway wearing a hoodie with a noose around the neck, it's not impossible to imagine minority employees were in the room. But if they dared to speak up, their opinions surely went unheard.


When bringing an idea to the table, the last thing you should want is for everyone to agree with it. There is more value in others being able to contrast and question your assertions, bringing in new perspectives and views. Conversely, there is little gain in having the same old ones parroted back to you - especially if there is a missed opportunity to consider new creative ways to think about things.

A diverse team should represent different points of view, abilities, and experiences.


There can be value in cohesion, but in today's rapidly changing environment, the case for diversity is quite a strong one. Yes, we must provide different groups with equal opportunities and protect them from being discriminated against. And we should also recognise and value the differences in people because they can be the best path to making better decisions. Deep-level diversity is key. This means having different personalities, values, and abilities represented in a team rather than filling quotas with demographic variables such as gender or age. If we embrace diversity of thinking and culture fully then greater equality should follow.


Bias: A Universal Constant

Everyone is biased. Bias is universal; we can't entirely avoid it. It's just how our brains tend to operate, and it can, unfortunately, lead to creating systematic disadvantages for certain groups of people. The best way to ensure you have a true diversity of thought represented in your company or institution is to try and employ people with different backgrounds and abilities. Oftentimes, this begins with the recruiting process (but it shouldn't end there because we want lasting change and not surface representation!)


Hiring for Diversity

Many businesses have chosen to anonymise applications, not just hiding the name, gender, or photo of an applicant but also making sure there is no age or address mentioned. We all have a natural tendency to resist the unfamiliar, so this is an easy practice that can have an immediate impact. Whenever possible, we should try to reduce bias in our organisational procedures. In terms of hiring new employees, this means both how you can appeal to them and how you evaluate them.


Education and experience are areas frequently highlighted in a resume, but asking for a work sample test and giving a candidate the chance to explain their approach is a much better indicator of someone's ability. The first two are valid measurements, but they usually say more about a person's background than their abilities. Underrepresented groups might not have certain specific credentials but could still be incredibly valuable to your team.


When running interviews, it's always better to have more than one reviewer (three is ideal) to make sure any single person's biases can be averaged out. You can also monitor how different groups progress through a hiring process and address any questions that might be causing an unfair disadvantage. It's likely you won't get everything right the first time, but it's okay to deliberately adjust your process as you identify your own biases and assumptions.


Why You Shouldn’t Enforce Process or Diversity

Diversity quotas often work in the short term. However, there is more value in having people with diverse backgrounds and thoughts encourage broader, well-thought-through ideas. This diversity should go beyond a particular demographic and focus instead on various viewpoints - making sure, of course, that different groups are well represented.


Trying to enforce equality by using quotas can deliver superficial victories that still fail to address the root of the problem. We know that people will usually kick back if told to follow strict processes. When you instead present a process as a guide (in which there can be exceptions if a strong case can be made for them), you incentivise people to follow them while providing their own creative input. The result is usually a more flexible and effective team that can feed on different points of view and experiences.


When we argue on the grounds of equality, we should be able to see beyond quotas. If we recognise the value of diversity and embrace a variety of thoughts, abilities, and experiences, we will be automatically creating lasting equality on all spheres of our life.