“Diversity” vs. “gender”?

By Joern Fischer

Most universities (at least in the “western” world) routinely have equity and diversity representatives sitting in on selection committees. When it comes to Germany, I’ve sometimes been quite unimpressed by how well-intentioned action to support diversity plays out in practice. Some visions of “diversity” and the ways to achieve it are narrow, and may do more harm than good to the quality of the selection process.

German institutions are, at face value, quite “gender-sensitive”. And so it’s no surprise that the colloquial name for the equity and diversity representative is in fact (roughly translated) the “women’s representative”. And this is where the first problem comes in: diversity beyond women is routinely overlooked. I’ve sat on a committee before where an African man had applied for a senior position. While all women who applied were carefully scrutinised, the African man was quickly ruled out as just not good enough. In my view, he was more competitive than some of the women who had been carefully discussed; he would have brought more diversity to our university than various women; and when it comes to discrimination, I’m pretty sure the obstacles he’s faced in his life were no fewer than those of various women. This routinely happens to applicants from developing countries, potentially even for positions where at least considering this dimension of diversity would be truly beneficial.

It’s time for “diversity” then, to be more than just “more women”. To understand the world, we benefit from diversity in all its facets, including cultural, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. Gender should be in the mix, of course, but it’s not the only factor.

Why are there so few female professors in Germany? I’m pretty sure that at departments like ours, the answer to this is more structural than about day-to-day discrimination. To my mind, the dropping out of talented women from academia has a lot more to do with creating family-friendly workplaces, and with making it routinely possible (in reality, not in theory) for aspiring academics to work part-time, than with discrimination against women as such. This isn’t to say there is never any discrimination against women. Rather, if a large part of the problem is structural, a large part of the solutions ought to be structural — just having ambitious quotas for what proportion of professors ought to be females is not going to do it. In fact, it’s a displacement activity from actually facing the structural problems. Asking people about how they consider “gender” in their teaching (a routine question at Leuphana) is similarly formulaic, and anyone with a brain can bull*^&! her or his way through this while being completely sexist at heart.

I addition to structural problems, there are also cultural problems that current approaches often overlook. For one, gender stereotyping is widespread in Germany, and both women and men engage in it. This national pastime stands in the way of seeing people for who they are. Also, many academic environments are quite cut-throat, and naturally or culturally more “sensitive” people who value things other than building or expanding their own empires, may find the whole culture of professorial life quite off-putting.

In short, I’d love to see “diversity” in the workplace being interpreted as more than “women”; and I’d like to see structural and cultural issues tackled as such. This would benefit everyone in the workplace, women included.

As always, I’m happy for comments, including critical ones, and if there are important aspects missing from my analysis (or if I’m plainly wrong in some parts) then do let me know! It’s an important issue and I’m sure mine is not the only workplace struggling to improve.


4 thoughts on ““Diversity” vs. “gender”?

  1. I’d make a similar argument to that being made by the Black Lives Matter movement–prioritizing women’s advancement in higher education (or saying ‘more women’) does not diminish the importance of other realms of diversity. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that there is a long history of gender inequality in academia and that this inequality still permeates our institutions. There is a persistent pay gap (11% less on average in UK academia) and a stark underrepresentation of women in full-time/tenured contracts. Until greater equality is seen in these realms, it is still fair game to say that gender diversity matters.
    In our office, I seem to hear most critiques of gender balancing coming from white men. I think here, as in other issues of inequality, the majority in power is not the group that decides when the system acts and feels equal.
    My two cents. Thanks for engaging with this important topic.

  2. Hi Joern,

    I’ve always thought the word ‘diversity’ was a buzzword. I found it interesting that at least in your situation it simply means ‘more women’ because in the UK I don’t think that’s the case. I remember having a chat with a hiring manager who hired someone of an ethnic background to hit a quota. He knew full well he’d passed over ten people who were far more skilled but he needed to show the workforce was ‘diverse’. There needs to be a line between competency and diversity. What does diversity mean in the real world?

    • A response to your comment:
      No ‘quota’ overrules ‘competence’ – any affirmative action policy is based on choosing from a pool of similarly qualified applicants. Affirmative action is designed to give equally qualified members of structurally disadvantaged groups a fair chance – something they on average still do not get.
      And think about it this way: the argument that a quota leads to hiring less qualified ‘minorities’ over more qualified people of privileged/majority background implicitly assumes that there are no equally qualified people of ‘minority’ background. Where would you say such thinking comes from?

  3. A lot of food for thought here. Just a quick comment inspired by the previous commenter — it’s been quite rare that I’ve seen the “competency vs. diversity” concern documented carefully rather than idiosyncratically or anecdotally. While it is of course possible that diversity comes at a cost to some aspect of “competency”–though the implicit reduction of competency and qualification to a single, objective-by-implication axis is questionable itself–there is also plenty of counterevidence to the idea that this is a real/widespread problem. In the classic case, making orchestral auditions gender-blind (auditioners were separated by screen I believe from the person evaluating) dramatically raised the proportion of women who were highly rated. Conversely, a number of studies have found that substituting a name that carries some sort of obvious ethnic or gender identifying features for a name typically associated with white males regularly decreases evaluation of resumes, even when *it is the same resume*.

    So while it is completely possible that any given decision “for” diversity may come at a cost to competency, I am certainly more familiar with evidence indicating the opposite–that diversity is fostered when “quality” is evaluated without knowledge of ethnicity or gender. I’m not recommending that this be attempted for all jobs–orchestra member is a somewhat unique example–but we should be wary of assuming our personal evaluations and examples for a widespread problem. Especially when there’s some indication that the opposite phenomenon is a bigger problem.

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