Thursday, February 26, 2015

Opportunity and Diversity

           Recently concern has been expressed regarding the lack of diversity among the employees of major companies in Silicon Valley.  It is observed that the distribution of employees at these firms is markedly different, across ethnic, racial and gender dimensions, than the distribution of people in the population as a whole.  The implicit assumption is that the skewed distribution is result of unfair barriers, such as bias, prejudice, and cronyism that prevent there being equal access for all people.  The implication is that if those barriers are reduced, perhaps through political intervention, the distribution of employees will become more similar to the overall population.
           While such an assumption may be true in certain situations, as a general proposition it is clearly false.  Here is one example.
           In 1972, American Frank Shorter won the marathon at the Olympic Games.  In that year, Track and Field News ranked the world’s top marathoners.  The list was remarkably diverse.  In addition to Shorter and other Americans, it included Japanese, Mexicans, Europeans, Russians, Australians, a New Zealander and an African, among others.  But in 1972 there were barriers to entry in marathon running.  The lack of funding for marathon runners and the underdevelopment of the African continent prevented most Africans from competing at an elite level.  In the ensuing years, those barriers came down.  Elite marathons began offering prize and appearance money and African countries developed.
           When Track and Field News ranked the top marathoners in 2014 the list was dramatically different.  Diversity had disappeared.  Every one of the top forty runners was from Ethiopia or Kenya.  But even that overstates the diversity.  Ethiopia and Kenya are not homogenous societies.  With few exception, all the elite marathoners came from ethnic minorities than lived in the mountainous parts of the countries.
           In marathoning at least, the end result of removing barriers to opportunity did not result in increased diversity but in a remarkable degree of specialization.  In an activity open to virtually every human – running distance – all the elite men (and virtually all the elite women) now come from small ethnic minorities of two African countries.  Equality of opportunity, in this case, did not promote diversity, it destroyed it.  This example, though perhaps the most dramatic, is not unique.  There are many other instances throughout the world of sport, where performance can measured more objectively, in which opening doors to all people has led to increased specialization.
           Of course, the marathoning example is not a general rule either.  There are obvious instances in which removal of barriers increased diversity.  The entry of African Americans into professions from which they were previously barred is an example.  As the barriers were torn down, diversity increased.
           What the example does show is the removing barriers and increasing diversity are not the same thing.  Furthermore, in situations where barriers are removed and diversity decreases, attempting to enforce it is hazardous.  Doing so in marathoning would result in a bias against elite African runners and an increase in the mediocrity of marathon competitions.  Whether there is a similar risk in other professions is difficult to determine.  But one thing is certain.  Simply comparing the distribution of people in a given profession with the distribution of the overall population will not produce a meaningful assessment of the potential benefits and costs of attempting to enforce greater diversity.  Each situation will require its own fact intensive investigation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're joking right? Easier said for a white male. I have worked in the finance and technology industry, both not favorable to colored women, as I am. However - finance has brought on an influx of Asian talent - diluting the talent pool - but women are still a minority. However, working in SV in technology - being colored and a female means really pushing for yourself more more so, unless you appear young, white, and "techy" (Zuckerbergs are welcome, and Sandbergs - that's if you have the ivy degree). I think all SV firms are dealing with these problems. Everyone talks about them but no one is walking the walk. It's a real problem.