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Diversity oh well Diversity. Being born in a country that puts the education above all else, it is not surprising that the first time that I heard this word was at a college fair in my hometown, Guiyang, China. It was a fair about the Top 50 US Universities. I still remember vividly what the keynote speaker told the audience, “What makes America great is diversity.” At the time, while still being in high school, I couldn’t comprehend its importance. It felt like when my mother asked me to read Jane Eyre in primary school, I finished reading the book as it was written, but I lacked the life experience to truly understand Bronté’s love story.

As I grew older and started to travel around different places, I began to realise diversity’s increasing importance not just in academics but also in other areas like business and governance. Everyone knows that diversity can bring something different to the table, might it be different genders, ethnicities, academics backgrounds or sexual orientations. People often assume that the whole point of having a diverse team is to be politically correct or to look great when you put your team photo on the website’s front-page. However, what people tend not to understand is the value of diversity itself.

Like many expats, who have been constantly moving across borders and “forcefully” put to work with the international teams, we sometimes take the benefits from diversity for granted so much that I don’t know why it matters anymore. This is especially true for students from top schools. The students from these schools study in an international company and then go work for a multi-national firm. What we do need to understand is much of today’s world does not have the same kind of atmosphere. Maybe our precious ivory towers sometimes are sabotaging the very purpose for their existence.

We don’t know what we don’t know

The main reason why people often underestimate the value of diversity is that we don’t know what we don’t know. There are three kinds of knowledge out there. The ones that we know, the ones that we know that we don’t know, and the ones that we don’t know that we don’t know. The very value of diversity is exactly why it is underestimated in the eyes of the be-holders. Recently, I was part of a STEM event that took place in Shanghai. Most of the participants are from middle to middle-upper households studying at top Uni outside China. Many of the guys loved to joke about other straight guys acting very gay like. I know that these people were all very nice and held no prejudice towards gays at all. But what was missing was that they didn’t understand LGBTQ+ communities well enough to know these kinds of jokes are very inappropriate and could potentially hurt LBGTQ+ individuals’ feelings in some very subtle way. I know this only because I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community and I would probably not have noticed about this behaviour’s potential negative implications if I were in their shoes. Sometimes, there are just things that you don’t know that you don’t know, and the only way to know is to let others tell you.

The need to increase diversity

Recently, Goldman Saches enacted a policy saying, “No IPO if board lacks diversity.” I mean, if Goldman knows that it matters, it probably does matter right? But why do we need to increase minority presence all across the board?

  • It is hard enough to be the only one different in the room. If you are caucasian going to a meeting, imagine if all the other people in the meeting are Asian, African or something, whatever you do, people will notice. It is very intimidating to be in a situation like this.
  • It only gets harder when people don’t agree with you when you are a member of the minority group. So let’s say you are used to being the only person that has a different skin colour, but you still have to fight when other people don’t agree with your viewpoint. I had the experience one time at a Hackathon and there was this team doing a video game showcasing the life of children who suffer from Autism. The game aimed to simulate the experience of an Autism child protagonist. There was this one level in the game where you had to dodge all the balls others threw at you because they didn’t understand the fact that you have Autism. The game had many other levels that tried to simulate the adversarial encounters that the Autism children might face, but the issue was many of the levels were so descriptive and dark that they produce unintended side-effects. To put it a simple way, the game itself had many controversies. Hence, a few female judges raised the concerns that this sort of games needed to go through some form of ethics approval but most other male judges were adamant about the game arguing the game had a good intention and should not require any ethics/moral ground justification. Male judges far outnumbered female judges so by the time that everyone expressed his/her own opinion, all we could remember was that most people thought the game was OK. Whether or not the game itself had legitimate issues is another conversation but how the decision-making process is governed by the demographics makeup of the body did not reflect the views of the general population. That’s why we need to increase the proportion of minority groups to be able to see all different angels fairly.

Don’t get me wrong. I also have friends who sometimes complain that nowadays it is more difficult for a white male because of the whole diversity talk. But is this true? We do have many program quota that is dedicated to minority groups, so this might come off to seem like many people get in not because of how good they are but what they are. This argument is precarious. First, most leaders in government or business are white male, and this doesn’t seem right when we consider the fact that half of the world’s population is female and a substantial portion of the population is not white. That’s why we need to have those specific programs to support minority groups. Furthermore, it is exactly because we don’t have a large enough women presence in some organizations/sectors that we fail to attract more of the similar candidates to the same areas.

Ok, I have to admit that diversity is not a panacea to all the problems we have. Having diverse groups means that we are going to create more friction and sometimes this frication might slow down the process and destabilises in one’s organization. Perhaps sometimes it is OK to say men are better at something and women are better at other things. For example, most teachers in primary education are female, and the staff in the human resource department also tend to be female but people hardly complains about the lack of diversity there. I think the real deal-breaker is whether people can have a choice in the end. Being a teacher or a human resource professional is accessible to both men and women, so people choose to do them if they have a passion for either teaching or working with people. However, when we are talking about leadership, management, or other more critical positions people often don’t get to use what they want. This same principle also applies to other demographic minority groups. Only when everyone has a fair chance of doing the same thing, not because of what they are but because of what they can do, can we say we have done our job right.

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Hang Yuan

An AI researcher in training and an entrepreneur at heart.

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