The importance of diversity

When diversity, or rather the lack of diversity, is brought up in an article, discussion, talk, or some other context, there always seem to be some people who react by questioning the importance of diversity, saying something along the lines of:

Why is diversity so important? We should hire/select people based on merits, not based on their gender/race/other grouping.

That’s not an actual quote, but I have heard variations of it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

What this argument does, is attacking the whole premise of the problem we are trying to address. They don’t necessarily deny that there is a lack of diversity, but they will usually claim that the lack of diversity is by choice by the people left out, and that it isn’t a problem, since diversity isn’t important, merit is.

Given the number of times I have come across this argument, I thought it might be time to write an article that addresses why diversity is important.

There are a few major reasons, which I think can be summed up as:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

Let’s take them one by one.


There is a fundamentally lack of fairness if a group of people are excluded from certain positions. There are certainly special cases where it can be argued that it makes sense to exclude certain groups of people (e.g. firefighters cannot be paraplegic), but at a general level, this doesn’t apply.

The counter argument against fairness is usually a claim of meritocracy, but the math simply doesn’t hold up for such claims. Eric Ries does a good job at addressing this at this 2011 Techcrunch article, which I definitely think is worth reading. It focuses on the startup environment, but the arguments are as valid in all other fields.

In the article, Eric Ries also links to a blogpost he wrote in 2010, Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business), where he pretty much sums up why the claim of meritocracy is directly disproven by the lack of diversity:

Diversity is the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. As entrepreneurs, more than any other industry, we’re in the meritocracy business. The companies that make decisions based on merit, rather than title, politics, or hierarchy execute faster and learn faster than their competitors. For startups (and other innovators), that’s a decisive advantage.

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

I think that is a pretty good argument. A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

This is, unless one believes that there is some kind of gender-specific or genetic component to merit. Such a belief is, of course, completely unproven, and flies against all research, that shows that e.g. gender-specific differences are minor, at best.

So, all in all, a lack of diversity, shows a lack of fairness, where people are evaluated on their merits, and not on some other, irrelevant factor.

Reducing biases

It is well documented that there are significant evaluation and hiring biases at play when a person is being considered for hiring or promoting.

E.g. it is well documented that men tend to have a bias towards evaluating men better than women, and that men are considered better for leadership positions (see e.g. Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge” (pdf)). That there is a bias against hiring homosexuals (pdf), and that perceived race has a major impact on whether you are taken into consideration for a job (USA study, Swedish study (pdf)).

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions. Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Better performance

Again, this follows somewhat naturally from the idea that diversity is symptom of a true meritocracy.

As I already said in the reducing biases section, diversity helps solve problems (there is even a paper out there proving this mathematically), and there is clear evidence that companies with a diverse leadership perform better financially. As McKinsey & Company writes in the introduction to their Diversity Matters paper

The analysis found a statistically significant relationship between a more diverse leadership and better financial
performance. The companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial
returns that were above their national industry median. Companies in the top quartile of racial/ethnic diversity
were 30 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median. Companies in the
bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity/race were statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial
returns than the average companies in the dataset (that is, they were not just not leading, they were lagging). The
results varied by country and industry. Companies with 10 percent higher gender and ethnic/racial diversity on
management teams and boards in the US, for instance, had EBIT that was 1.1 percent higher; in the UK, companies
with the same diversity level had EBIT that was 5.8 percent higher. Moreover, the unequal performance across
companies in the same industry and same country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator that shifts
market share towards more diverse companies.
Diversity matters because we increasingly live in a global world that has become deeply interconnected. It should
come as no surprise that more diverse companies and institutions are achieving better performance. Most
organisations, including McKinsey, have work to do in taking full advantage of the opportunity that a more diverse
leadership team represents, and, in particular, more work to do on the talent pipeline: attracting, developing,
mentoring, sponsoring, and retaining the next generations of global leaders at all levels of the organisation. But
given the increasing returns that diversity is expected to bring, it is better to invest now, as winners will pull further
ahead and laggards will fall further behind.

In order to get a diverse leadership, the workforce as a whole needs to be diverse, otherwise you have no recruitment base.

In conclusion

When you are a white cis male heterosexual it is easy to ignore the lack of diversity in society, and claim that your advantage is based upon a meritocracy, but there are plenty of studies that demonstrates that there are a lot of biases against anyone not falling within that very narrow group, which clearly demolishes the idea of a meritocracy. There are also plenty of experiments that shows that attempts to counter the biases, will result in a greater diversity (see e.g. the famous idea of blind auditioning of orchestra members), which clearly demonstrates that diversity would be a much better measure of a true meritocracy.

A clear sign of this being the case, is the fact that companies with a diverse leadership do better financially.



  1. waltermcc says

    When I heard about black actors boycotting the Oscars, located in one of the most liberal towns in the country, I just had to laugh. It was too funny.

    I think you might know why, or not. Imagine black musicians boycotting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a group located in that conservative bastion of Massachusetts.

    My father, an Electrical Engineer, could have cared less about the ethnicity or skin color of someone who was well versed in the mathematics of radar to relativity. Just like the symphony orchestra, he would have been more than happy to have conducted his interviews with candidates sitting behind a closed curtain.