• Laura WP

How to Respond to “That Guy” Who Wants Quality over Diversity

I was on a conference call the other day and we were discussing a talent selection process. At one point the topic of diversity came up. It was straightforward enough at the start. I was asked to provide suggestions for how the initiative could encourage a broad pool of talent to apply, and I responded with some ideas.

Then things went a little sideways. One of the other people on the call spoke up: I think we should wait on diversity, and first focus on quality. This initiative is brand new, and the most important thing for its longevity is that the people we’re working with are successful. Let’s worry about diversity later.

I have heard versions of this sentiment countless times. Diversity is great, but let’s not let it distract from quality. In a prior post I deconstructed how this is a fundamentally biased (sexist, racist, etc) position cloaked in 21st-century-acceptable language. Here I want to share how I respond to it with cold, hard logic.

OK, I said. If you believe that talent [brilliance, genius, intelligence, creativity -- use whatever language is being used in your company, conversation, etc] is equally distributed across gender, race, and class [or whatever dimension is being debated], then a well-designed and well-run recruitment, application, and selection process should be able to attract and identify talent from the full spectrum of backgrounds. If the process that we implement is yielding a disproportionately homogenous group, then our process is missing a large portion of the talent out there, and our process is flawed.

There are lots of versions of this that could work, but there are two key parts to this response that I have found make it particularly effective:

1) Establish the premise. Do you believe that talent is equally distributed across demographics -- or do you believe it is concentrated amongst middle/upper class white men?* Would you like for our process to be able to recognize talent regardless of background -- or would you prefer our process to only recognize talent present in middle/upper class white men?

2) Establish the variable. If we agree that talent is equally distributed and we’d like to recognize it regardless of demographic background, then if our process yields predominantly middle/upper class white men, it is our process that is flawed (not the talent). Luckily the thing within our control is the design and implementation of the process! So we should be able to iterate on it until it does what we want it to do, which (back to premise) is to yield a diverse group of talented individuals.

For me it took years of practice of being in these sorts of situations to get to a place where I could overcome the racing pulse and sweaty palms and sick feeling in my gut to respond with cool logic. When I got off that call I got two emails from other people on it thanking me for effectively giving voice to their sentiments and saying they would use that framing in the future. I’m glad it was helpful to them and I hope it’s helpful to you too!

If you have other responses you’ve used that work, or if end up trying this one out, I’d love to know how it goes in the comments.


*Note: I am positive that there are people out there who believe the answer to this is “no” -- they believe talent is concentrated in white men and the reason they are middle/upper class and generally running ish is because they’re so talented. One possible side benefit of this response is figuring out if that’s what your conversation partner believes. Because if it is, there’s really no point on a practical level to continuing the dialogue. You probably don’t want to work with that person or be in an environment where they are a key decision maker.

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This is the script for a public lecture I gave at the American University of Rome in Rome, Italy on October 4, 2018. Since I ad-libbed a bit as I talked, it’s not a perfect representation of the lectu