The questions you‘re not supposed to ask about diversity

If you’re being solicited to help promote diversity at your workplace, are you clear on what that means?

We all understand that increasing diversity is not just a worthwhile goal but an urgent one. Don’t we? At least we understand everyone else believes that.

But is it really a desirable goal? No one recommends diversity in marriage, but just the opposite — picking a spouse with whom you share values and interests. Perhaps workplace relationships are completely different, but it’s not obvious that’s the case.

Is diversity even a goal at all?

Consider the word itself. Diversity comes from the Latin meaning two truths. A diverse group isn’t dominated by a single type of member. Multiple types coexist within it; it doesn’t have too much of any one. It’s not just non-homogeneous, it’s anti-homogeneous.

Which is to say on its face diversity is a negative goal. To call for diversity isn’t to identify any desired state, just to oppose one particular homogeneous state.

Beware the negative goal. It’s a blank check. A marathon with no finish line. On what dimensions are team members assessed? By what test of sameness should they not all be the same? How much variation does the team need to become diverse? These are all left to the imagination.

In other words the literal term is so vague it scarcely means anything at all.

Social justice usage

Of course, we know people calling for more diversity have something more specific in mind. They want to see more women and fewer men, more blacks and fewer whites in certain desirable positions.

What are the benefits of favoring the black woman over the white man? Is such a policy alleged to help the team, or to help the “diversity” employees, or to shape the statistics in a pleasing way? She’s more valuable to the team, shouldn’t she simply be paid more? If not, why not?

How diverse are you supposed to make the team? If half of CEOs were women and 13% were black to match the US population, would diversity activists retire in satisfaction? Or would they continue to press race and gender preferences on a new front?

Can such a state of “optimal diversity” be considered diverse at all? If neither environmental nor innate differences between genders or races lead people toward different roles, society is homogeneous — exactly the opposite of diverse.

Ask the meta questions

Healthy organizations welcome conversations about important goals. Teams work best when people have a clear common understanding of the goals and why they’re important.

But those same organizations are curiously willing to promote diversity initiatives protected by a ring of invisible eggshells. No one dares discuss diversity for fear of being called racist, or because no one else is asking any questions, or both.

Are you in such an organization? Ask yourself some meta questions — not about diversity itself but about how the company treats the topic:

  • Are people around you using diversity as a euphemism for race and gender preferences?
  • If they believe such preferences are a good idea, why might they feel the need to smuggle them in euphemisms?
  • Is it culturally safe to ask questions about diversity policies, or is something enforcing a taboo against anything but full-throated support?
  • If diversity or any other cause is vital to do, can it also be harmful to define or discuss?
  • Are you being respected or bullied?

If you’d rather not spend your days tiptoeing around eggshells, stop. Taboos endure only because no one stands up to them.

You don’t have to ask a confrontational question like “why?” Ask a focusing question like “How will we know when our organization is appropriately diverse?” Or ask a meta question like “How many employees feel safe discussing our diversity goals, and how many sense it’s a taboo subject?” Then listen to the answer you get, because it will doubtless invite more questions.

Any group’s culture is defined by what its members do every day. You have as much power as anyone else to steer yours. In fact you’re already doing so. Whenever you self-censor to avoid eggshells, you’re building a culture of eggshells and self-censorship. Whenever you put a toe across the line of a taboo, you’re creating a culture of openness, carving out more space for others to say what’s really on their mind.

What sort of culture do you want to spend your days in?

Tech guy trapped in the data mines of San Francisco. Follow me at

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