Diversity Leadership Council Newsletter
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Diversity Leadership Council

June 2017, vol. 10, no. 1

Competence plus—Why diversity matters

I have often heard some variation of the statement, “Diversity shouldn’t be considered just for the sake of diversity.” Admittedly, in my efforts to interpret what is meant by such statements, I am left to read between the lines. Too often it seems that what is being suggested is that the goal of diversity is merely to satisfy a quota or to enhance the optics.

What can also be reasonably interpreted is that the people who say this too often believe that meaningful and substantive contribution likely may not come from a person who represents diversity. I am not surprised to find that the people who wear their biases with pride have such views. I am, however, still surprised when I hear such statements from people I know to be well-intentioned, well-informed, accomplished, and even likable. Perhaps this is what is most troubling.

Many times I have heard that the available board position, committee membership or employment position is too important, or it addresses issues that are too complex, for diversity to be a significant consideration in determining who will occupy critical positions. I have heard this more often than I’d like to admit. I cringe every time I hear it, because I understand that inherent in such statements is the presupposition that diversity and competence are mutually exclusive.

I’ve come to recognize this conundrum as an opportunity. I see it as an opportunity to confront such views and statements in the moment they are shared, but in a manner that educates, without humiliating the person making the offending remark. Oddly enough, to do so in any other manner would create yet another challenge. My frustration with the insensitive statement might become more of an issue than the actual insensitive statement. Go figure. While the words, “We should not pursue diversity just for the sake of diversity,” feel insensitive and unenlightened, the person making the statement is frequently unaware that the words are even offensive. This may itself be the best evidence of the need for diversity.

We are all limited by the nature, depth and breadth of our experiences—and the nature, depth and breadth of what we are willing to learn. What we learn in life is dependent on what we seek out, and what information rains on us, sometimes by chance. So if a person has not been exposed to the benefits of diversity or has not intentionally sought an understanding of the importance of diversity, he or she may unwittingly embrace a less enlightened perspective. This applies equally to business organizations, social, political, and every other kind of organization.

In all fairness, it is also true that simply legislating token membership or participation can never truly achieve the goal of diversity. Token membership and token participation do not benefit the organization or the diverse member. Token membership and token participation will more likely lead to unanticipated setbacks in the area of diversity, ultimately causing more harm than the good intended.

Most people are not naturally inclined toward seeking out diversity because there is comfort in being around people whose appearance and perspective affirm our own. We are generally drawn to people who seem to be most like the person we see in the mirror. This tendency brings about an unintended consequence of limiting one’s perspective and one’s depth of understanding, which are the very things that tend to crowd out suspicion and unenlightenment.

It is well established that diversity and competence can, and do, come in the same person. The pursuit of diversity presents an opportunity to acquire a competent contributor, plus the perspective of person who has lived a different life—a life that has formed a different world view, and a world view that could expand the discussion, and more fully inform the deliberations of an organization. That is why diversity matters.

Member Comments

The bias you speak of is especially common when the diverse member is a person with a disability.