I know, I know.. this is a touchy topic, and the proponents on both sides usually have had deep personal experiences, warranting their strong emotions on this subject. I am not a researcher or diversity specialist. I’m a woman, a feminist, and I have often debated this, with people on both sides. I write this more to clarify my own thinking, than anything else.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not politically correct, so please read at your own discretion.
Let me start with the case against diversity, women, and URM (under represented minorities) hiring (also referred to as ‘affirmative action’). I start with the case against, because, as a feminist, this has been the more challenging perspective to internalize. But, having now personally counted towards ‘diversity quotas’ at several companies, I am beginning to fully understand the negative repercussions –
- First, the candidates hired from ‘diversity categories’ often suffer imposter syndrome. Since they know their organization has a diversity hiring target, they sometimes feel they ‘made it’ because of this target. This has severe implications on that individual’s self worth and sense of self. Even if this individual believes in her/ himself, it can create a ‘pinch’ in their sub-conscious mind, particularly in situations where s/he makes a mistake at work (for instance ‘I was hired because I am a woman, but I am not good enough, and that’s why I made this mistake’). Nobody wants to feel that their background had any role to play in their hiring – everyone deserves to feel that they were hired solely based on their competence and merit
- The other oft-quoted negative consequence is ‘mismatch‘ – when someone who isn’t at the same academic or professional level is accepted to a university or hired into an organization that is in fact a ‘mismatch’ for that individual’s current competency levels. This results in alienation. Students and employees start doubting themselves – they drop out, or quit, and suffer terrible mental health consequences
- Thirdly, the non-URM majority may be ‘resentful’ of those hired from URM categories. This could foster a negative culture and create preconceived notions of the URM individual not being as competent as the others. This is not only a burden for the person who’s been hired, but also, for the non-URM majority who constantly feel they work with others ‘not as good as them’
- Lastly, many of those who benefit from such policies, have in fact themselves been privileged. For instance, a black girl born to rich parents, went to private schools and had access to the best resources and equal opportunity
It feels unfair that this individual now gets a preference in hiring. The non-URM majority feels that this particular URM individual basically had the same life as everyone else – so, why should s/he get an unfair advantage now?
On the other hand, most of us fundamentally understand the need and reasons for these policies –
- Those from under-represented backgrounds have historically not had access to equal opportunities. Traditionally, those from URM backgrounds have also been on an unequal financial footing – for instance, been unable to go to a good school. It therefore becomes important to pursue ‘equity over equality‘.
Equality focuses on creating the same starting line for everyone. Equity has the goal of providing everyone with opportunities and benefits based on their unique starting point – i.e. move towards the same finish line.
- Having diverse view points at the table, makes everyone better – different perspectives are considered, and decision-making is more empathetic and holistic
- It makes those from under-represented backgrounds feel more ‘at home’. For instance, if I am the only woman in the room, I feel alienated and unable to blend into the ‘boys’ club’. If there are several others like me, I feel I have more allies and I ‘belong’
- Perhaps most important, is the long-term implication. When young girls and children from other under-represented backgrounds, see someone like themselves – at the best universities, in lucrative jobs, leading others, they start to believe in themselves. They think ‘I can, too’. The importance of having someone from your gender or race who you can look up to, cannot be overstated
According to this study, students who reported having at least one race- and gender-matched role model at the beginning of the study performed better academically up to 24 months later, reported more achievement-oriented goals, enjoyed achievement-relevant activities to a greater degree, thought more about their futures, and looked up to adults rather than peers more often than did students without a race- and gender-matched role model
As I write this, I’m beginning to form a perspective: for the ‘individual‘ as a unit, affirmative action is painful. The individual from a URM background suffers self-doubt, coupled with isolation and unfair judgement from others. The individual from a majority background feels resentful, and has a feeling of unfairness and ‘superiority complex’ regarding her/ his peers. On the other hand, for society as a whole, affirmative action is the long-term path towards equality. If there are under-represented minorities in important positions, they raise their communities with them. Children from their communities believe they can do it too. Every child can dream big.
The individual pain, both for those from URM backgrounds and from majority backgrounds, is the cost we pay in the short term, to undo past damage, and move towards equality in the long term. The feelings of alienation, imposter syndrome, resentment, unfairness for both sides of the table – represent the sacrifice each of us makes – it is an imperfect ‘means’ for the hope of a perfect ‘end’, in the long term.
Naturally, the ones (including me) who believe in pure meritocratic systems, believe that there is a mid-way: a way to lessen the short-term pain. That is – the bar for every individual, irrespective of background, should be equal. Meaning, even if I decide to hire 20% URMs, everyone is evaluated against the same benchmark. The problem is that there are often not enough qualified candidates from URM backgounds (we all understand why!). This essentially means more efforts in increasing the ‘top of the funnel’ from under-represented communities, rather than making concessions in evaluation of under-represented individuals. Rather than interview 100 URM individuals for a position, you may have to interview 500. And if, after ‘reasonable and honest tries’, you’re unable to find a URM candidate who fits the bill, you still don’t change the benchmark. In that case, you hire a non-URM candidate. But then you send a message – to both the majority and URM categories, that everyone who ‘makes it’, is equally competent. This can significantly reduce the personal emotional and psychological costs both sides have to pay.
Lastly, in reality, and as organizations scale, this could become tougher and tougher to execute, because the universe of qualified candidates from URM categories, by definition, may be more limited. Also, evaluating ‘reasonable and honest tries’ is subjective and could lead to gaming the system. Therefore, I do not have a perfect antidote. But, I do have hope and a somewhat-imperfect and perhaps idealistic idea, to keep moving towards the long-term objective we all agree on, while lessening the short-term pain.
- Have we outgrown the need for affirmative action? – New Yorker, 2020
- The painful truth about affirmative action – The Atlantic, 2012
- Affirmative action – is it still necessary? – NPR podcast, 2012
- We still need affirmative action in college admissions, here’s why – Washington Post, 2017
- Is there a place for me? Role models among students – Research paper, 2002