The Case for Diversity

Although it is long played out as a buzzword, diversity as a concept still has a lot of room to grow.  Most of us pay lip-service to its importance but do very little outside our comfort zones to encourage it in our own personal and professional lives.  Why is that?

I suspect it's because we think we have more to gain from seeming to value diversity than from actually experiencing it.  Spouting off on diversity's importance makes us look worldly and modern, but actually diversifying our friend pool and work networks seems to be a high-effort, low-payoff action. 

We'll get to the effort part in a minute.  Let's talk about what we believe the payoff to be.  Obviously, if we really thought it would benefit us, we'd put more time into actually pursuing it.  It leads me to believe we don't actually think it will benefit us.  

I can't speak for social gains, but conceptually the more different your friends are from you the richer your interactions should be.  Not to mention you'll probably score some killer food that you would never come across on your own.  

But as for work gains, here's an incredible data point from a recent study: up to a fifth of the growth in output per worker in the last 50 years is due to the fact that there are just more non-white men in professions like medicine, law, and management.  Here's a quote from the study:

In 1960, 94 percent of doctors were white men, as were 96 percent of lawyers and 86 percent of managers. By 2008, these numbers had fallen to 63, 61, and 57 percent, respectively. Given that innate talent for these professions is unlikely to differ between men and women or between blacks and whites, the allocation of talent in 1960 suggests that a substantial pool of innately talented black men, black women, and white women were not pursuing their comparative advantage. This paper estimates the contribution to U.S. economic growth from the changing occupational allocation of white women, black men, and black women between 1960 and 2008. We find that the contribution is significant: 17 to 20 percent of growth over this period might be explained simply by the improved allocation of talent within the United States.

In other words, by diversifying various professions, many more talented folks were brought into the mix, leading to far better outcomes across the board.  This is the power of diversity at work, in entire professions as well as in individual workplaces.  Said in another way, when we don’t have diversity, we are missing out on a lot of talent out there.

Now, tapping into that talent takes effort.  (I told you I’d come back to the effort part.)  Diversity, however you want to define it, means differences.  And, inherently, we tend to cluster with people who have similarities with us, whether race/ethnicity, age, educational background, whatever.  So it takes effort to bridge those differences enough to make meaningful connections that can lead to real progress. 

I’m not arguing that diversity is easy to pursue.  I am arguing that it’s worth it.

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