What is diversity? Take 2.

What is diversity? Why does it matter? When do we know when we’ve achieved it?

These were some of the driving questions for our kick-off Diversity Journal Club for 2016. Ian already provided one recap of that conversation, but I wanted to add my own thoughts.

First, some potentially obvious answers.

Diversity literally means difference. One person cannot be diverse. Groups or teams or ecosystems are diverse.

Diversity matters. Diverse teams are more productive, creative, and better at solving problems. There’s math and logic, as well as an entire and very worthwhile book, to back this up.

And as for how to we know when we’ve achieve it… I think it’s safe to say we’ve got a long way to go before the diversity in STEM fields, from researcher to especially department chair and CEO, represent the diversity of people outside those fields.

But here’s the thing. Here’s what got me thinking beyond our conversation. First, there was this nagging at me, as well:

In addition, we spent some time discussing if the goal of increasing diversity should be as a means to being more successful, or if it is an end itself.

But, even as an end – as something you should be doing – what is the motivation behind it?

As an end, increasing diversity can be considered the right thing to do morally, or the right thing to do so you don’t get in trouble. But… even if and when “diversity” is an end goal for the best of intentions…… there’s still something weird in there for me. And then I read the following resources posted by DiversityJC contributors:


What starts to get me is this: When we make “diversity” a goal, how do we ensure it doesn’t become a token hire, a box to be checked? If we achieve a “diverse” group, we may feel better about it, think we’ve done our part – but is that enough?

Are we using “diversity” as a word to make us feel better, but does it have any real meaning? Does it translate to real impacts?

The “diversity hire” black woman still feels discriminated against in her work place, still has trouble getting grants, getting published, and getting tenure, still has no mentor that truly understands, still may experience harassment in the field, and, on top of all that, is expected or wants to do diversity work that isn’t valued at her job and may even be frowned upon. She likely also now has to constantly prove she wasn’t hired just for her gender identity and the color of her skin. Her institution may still believe the meritocracy works for accepting students and hiring faculty and staff, and don’t consider social justice work or training important – their faculty is already “diverse”.

Last summer at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Centennial meeting, I attended an evening session on ‘retaining minority students’. An hour was spent on various diversity initiatives from academic institutions and non-profits. At the end, a black student raised her hand and said “I thought you wanted to hear how you can do better retaining minority students. I didn’t come here to listen to you tell me how you think you’re doing a good job at this.

And we spent the next hour talking about how institutional racism affects students every day. About their lived experiences as black students. They were passionate, and they were eloquent. I was floored by what they shared.

And then a white man said “yes, but can’t you see we’re trying? Why don’t you tell us what we can actually do.

Therein is the issue. We have diversity initiatives, we do care about diversity as the right thing to do… and yet we aren’t changing the lived experiences of marginalized and underrepresented groups.

More than that – we don’t understand why having those initiative isn’t enough. We think it should be. We feel insulted when people say it’s not. Reading about diversity as a polite, hopeful term that’s for white people – it’s tough to hear. It makes us uncomfortable.

But can’t you see we’re trying?

Diversity is a word I’ll continue to use, because it’s the word that conveys what I want to talk about right now, what I think is important. But how it translates – it has to be bigger, more powerful, more challenging. Bring about more change beyond a checked box. I personally go forward understanding there are issues with it.

Think of it this way. When I looked around the room at the students in the ESA seminar, these students should not be accepted into graduate programs because they mean more black students in the student body. Because it’s the right thing to do.

First, that sends the message that we hired you for the color of your skin. For something you have no control over. Because we think having a person that looks like you in our group is important. To us. It says all of these things and says nothing about how important that person is for their skills and value. Is it any wonder “diversity hires” then consistently have to prove themselves? Do we ever stop and think what we are actually saying with the programs we have?

Second, instead, these young men and women and gender-noncomformists should be graduate students, and postdocs, and tenured professors, and senior scientist, and CEOs because they have worked harder to be where they, with less mentoring, less guidance, less inspiration. Against people telling them, overtly as well as unconsciously, that they don’t belong there – whether that is because they aren’t smart enough, or because they should be a doctor or a lawyer. They are more committed, more driven, not because others are not driven, but because they’ve surpassed greater barriers, and will continue to surpass them. They will have a worldview and a perspective the other applicants do not. They will also be better mentors to a different population of students, better role models to new and different hires. They are better equipped to talk to and more trusted by a wider range of stakeholders, and collaborators.

They should be accepted into a program and hired for these reasons, in addition to their skills and qualifications. Institutions should be looking for these students for these reasons (not because it is right), designing blind application processes that result in a deep applicant pool that attracts these students as part of the best and brightest across the board (yes, it is possible).

But, third, institutions need to be doing more than thatespecially if they believe diversity is an important thing to address. Institutions should not be saying “hey we need to hire more women because it’s the right thing to do” – they should be accepting that business as usual is discriminatory and narrow in its world view. It is structurally a white man’s world. Institutions need to be developing a deeper, richer, curriculum that accesses research done by a more diverse group of scientists, that engages beyond traditional historical narratives. They need to be prioritizing social justice training, having conversations about microaggressions, actively addressing sexual harassment. They need to engage their existing staff and students in the conversations about diversity, why it matters, and how to address it.

Institutions need to do more than implement diversity programs. They need to recognize the importance of changing institutional culture, and do something about it.

Not because these are the right things to do but because they make for an inclusive, welcoming community that retains students, faculty, and staff from a range of backgrounds, and ensures that they flourish. That they will create change, develop new solutions, new research directions, attract new people. That diversity bears the fruits logic and math says it will.

Because, at the end of the day- it’s not about “diversity”, regardless of motivations.


It’s about outcomes.



Emily S. Klein (@DrEmilySKlein).

4 thoughts on “What is diversity? Take 2.

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