You don’t get what you deserve. Part II: diversity versus meritocracy?

“I’m all for diversity. That said, I don’t want to lower the bar.” – If you have been part of a hiring committee, you will probably have heard some version of that phrase. The first sentence expresses a commitment to diversity. The second sentence qualifies it: diversity shouldn’t get in the way of merit. Interestingly, the same phrase can be heard in opposing ways. A staunch defender of meritocracy will find the second sentence (about not lowering the bar) disingenuous. He will argue that, if you’re committed to diversity, you might be disinclined to hire the “best candidate”. By contrast, a defender of diversity will find the first sentence disingenuous. If you’re going in for meritocratic principles, you will just follow your biases and ultimately take the properties of “white” and “male” as a proxy of merit. – This kind of discussion often runs into a stalemate. As I see it, the problem is to treat diversity and meritocracy as an opposition. I will suggest that this kind of discussion can be more fruitful if we see that diversity is not a property of job candidates but of teams, and thus not to be seen in opposition to meritocratic principles.

Let’s begin with a clarification. I assume that it’s false and harmful to believe that we live in a meritocracy. But that doesn’t mean that meritocratic ideas themselves are bad. If it is simply taken as the idea that one gets a job based on their pertinent qualifications, then I am all for meritocratic principles. However, a great problem in applying such principles is that, arguably, the structure of hiring processes makes it difficult to discern qualifications. Why? Because qualifications are often taken to be indicated by other factors such as prestige etc. But prestige, in turn, might be said to correlate with race, gender, class or whatever, rather than with qualifications. At the end of the day, an adherent of diversity can accuse adherents of meritocracy of the same vices that she finds herself accused of. So when merit and diversity are taken as being in opposition, we tend to end up in the following tangle:

  • Adherents of diversity think that meritocracy is ultimately non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.
  • Adherents of meritocracy think that diversity is non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.*

What can we do in such a stalemate? How can the discussion be decided? Something that typically gets pointed out is homogeneity. The adherent of diversity will point to the homogeneity of people. Most departments in my profession, for instance, are populated with white men. The homogeneity points to a lack of diversity. Whether this correlates to a homogeneity of merit is certainly questionable. Therefore, the next step in the discussion is typically an epistemological one: How can we know whether the candidates are qualified? More importantly, can we discern quality independently from features such as race, gender or class? – In this situation, adherents of diversity typically refer to studies that reveal implicit biases. Identical CVs, for instance, have been shown to be treated as more or less favourable depending on the features of the name on the CV. Meritocratists, by contrast, will typically insist that they can discern quality objectively or correct for biases. Again, both sides seem to have a point. We might be subject to biases, but if we don’t leave decisions to individuals but to, say, committees, then we can perhaps correct for biases. At least if these committees are sufficiently diverse, one might add. – However, I think the stalemate will get passed indefinitely to different levels, as long as we treat merit and diversity as an opposition. So how can we move forward?

We try to correct for biases, for instance, by making a committee diverse. While this is a helpful step, it also reveals a crucial feature about diversity that is typically ignored in such discussions. Diversity is a feature of a team or group, not of an individual. The merit or qualification of a candidate is something pertaining to that candidate. If we look for a Latinist, for instance, knowledge of Latin will be a meritorious qualification. Diversity, by contrast, is not a feature, to be found in the candidate. Rather, it is a feature of the group that the candidate will be part of. Adding a woman to all-male team will make the team more diverse, but that is not a feature of the candidate. Therefore, accusing adherents of diversity of sexism or racism is fallacious. Trying to build a more diverse team rather than favouring one category strikes me as a means to counter such phenomena.

Now if we accept that there is such a thing as qualification (or merit), it makes sense to say that in choosing a candidate for a job we will take qualifications into account as a necessary condition. But one rarely merely hires a candidate; one builds a team, and thus further considerations apply. One might end up with a number of highly qualified candidates. But then one has to consider other questions, such as the team one is trying to build. And then it seems apt to consider the composition of the team. But that does not mean that merit and diversity are opposed to one another.

Nevertheless, prioritising considerations about the team over the considerations about the candidates are often met with suspicion. “She only got the job because …” Such an allegation is indeed sexist, because it construes a diversity consideration applicable to a team as the reason for hiring, as if it were the qualification of an individual. But no matter how suspicious one is, qualification and diversity are not on a par, nor can they be opposing features.

Compare: A singer might complain that the choir hired a soprano rather than him, a tenor. But the choir wasn’t merely looking for a singer but for a soprano. Now that doesn’t make the soprano a better singer than the tenor, nor does it make the tenor better than the soprano. Hiring a soprano is relevant to the quality of the group; it doesn’t reflect the quality of the individual.


* However, making such a claim, an adherent of meritocracy will probably rely on the assumption that there is such a thing as “inverted racism or sexism”. In the light of our historical sitation, this strikes me as very difficult to argue, at least with regard to institutional structures. It’s seems like saying that certain doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church are not sexist, simply because there are movements aiming at reform.

22 thoughts on “You don’t get what you deserve. Part II: diversity versus meritocracy?

  1. I am baffled by strict meritocratic thinking. I guess the feeling is that jobs are like prizes, given in recognition for extraordinary success by some measure. But jobs aren’t prizes and measures are arbitrary. Instead, hiring means finding the right person for the job, which has many variables. They need to have expertise, of course. But they need to work with others, operate in service roles, be constructive colleagues, and serve as role models. And, as always, all of us are committed to doing what we can to make the world more just. Hiring is complicated and hard. Reducing it to an award ceremony is perverse.

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  2. There’s something about the choir analogy that’s nagging at me, but I’m not sure what it is. Can you perhaps see your way through the following questions?

    The choir needs a soprano in order to perform pieces that call for a soprano. What’s the academic analogue of those certain pieces? Of the performance? Of the nature of the choir’s need?

    The choir hires the person who’s a soprano because they need a soprano, and the person they hire will not just be a soprano but an exemplary instance of the type. They’re not going to hire a person simply because they’re a soprano. And if they did hire a middling singer — which anyone with a suitably trained ear can discern — the excellent tenor might have more of a point.

    Does this have an analogue in the academic case? One would hope that being an exemplary instance of the type is not the reason a hiring committee hires a woman.


  3. Sorry, third paragraph addendum: “If they did hire a middling, or uncooperative, or ungenerous, etc. singer, the excellent, or cooperative, or generous, etc. tenor might have more of a point.”

    I didn’t intend to make it purely about expertise. I was using expertise as a stand-in for the things Huenemann mentions.


    1. Thanks for your question! I realise that there are various ways of costruing the analogy, and see a number of reasons why one might be haunted by irritations. As I indicated, I was looking for an illustration of my point that we’re looking for a feature of the *team* rather than the candidate. Anyway, let me try:

      – The analogue of the pieces might be a certain coverage and interplay of areas, questions, themes, methods.
      – The analogue of the performance might be the kind of discussion generated in colloquia, modes of teaching and co-teaching, interplay in service tasks, committee work.
      – The analogue of the need might be illustrated by the dominance or imbalance in certain feature that might or might not correlate with gender, race, class etc.

      – I’m not sure I get the point about the instance of a type. Do you refer to what’s commonly called tokenism? (Of course, people can be seen as instances of abundantly many types at once. Picking out just one kind of type would strike as strange)

      – Would the tenor have more of a point if the choir hired a middling singer? Not really, not qua tenor at least. If they are lacking a soprano, then there might be a poingt in complaining generally but not in claiming that a tenor would be a better soprano.

      – Let me add a further point that didn’t come up in your question, but might be relevant to construing the analogues: Where you speak of pieces etc., one could also pick other features, such as the sound of the choir or the repertoire (that is or isn’t possible now), etc. What I find salient is that the choir wants to attain a certain sound (they’re not just looking for a brilliant soloist).

      Do these answers help with your irritation?


      1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply! You’re right that I’m perhaps pushing the analogy past the point of its usefulness. It’s just difficult for me to focus on instructive similarities when the two groups have, to my mind, such crucially different kinds of product and kinds of goal. I’m also perhaps overly sensitive to the assimilation or conflation of aesthetic activity with other kinds of activity. Thus, despite your patiently and helpfully spelling out the analogues of the choir’s performance, pieces, and need, I’m still not quite registering the instructiveness of the analogy. I just have to work through it more on my own.

        Let me try to articulate the one glaring and crucial disanalogy — glaring to my mind, anyway — that seems to spoil things for me. (I think it has something to do with the fact that the choir is an artistic endeavor.) Consider your point about the choir wanting to attain a certain sound. Having a soprano, rather than a tenor, is necessary for attaining that sound. But, again, to achieve that sound, no director will hire just any soprano. Along with being a good team player, a good vocalist, etc., the soprano must be good QUA soprano. I don’t mean that the soprano must be a brilliant soloist. I just mean the soprano must be decent at the soprano-ish things, where there are intersubjectively available and recognizable standards for being a good one, even if there’s room for reasonable disagreement. Now imagine the analogue in the philosophy department case. A department wants to achieve the departmental equivalent of a certain sound, and it’s thought that to achieve that sound they need a woman. But if, as your analogy would seem to imply, they’re thinking like the choir director, they’re thinking that not only must the woman be a good team player, a good writer, etc., she must be good QUA woman, or good QUA woman philosopher, must be decent at woman-ish things or woman-philosopher-ish things (where, they’d be presuming, there are intersubjectively available and recognizable standards for such thing). And despite how many other type-descriptions she falls under, I think that is precisely the wrong description under which to think about her.

        Again, thanks for the post. Your approach, despite my own incomprehension of its particulars and regardless of its ultimate correctness, has been useful in thinking through these issues.


        1. Thanks for your intriguing follow-up. Like you, I am by no means done with the analogy or the topic. But at the moment I can’t think of a good way of addressing your worry.

          Let me ask you a question, then: What kind of (hiring) process would ensure to get at the qualities that you are looking for?


  4. (The functionality of the page isn’t letting me reply directly to your latest reply, so this will have to do.)

    That’s a big question! I hope I didn’t give the impression that I have any idea about what might be best. Also, let me say that I think your basic distinction between diversity as a valued property of teams and merit as a valued property of individuals is insightful and sound. So maybe I don’t I disagree so much with your point as with the analogy put forward to make it.

    I guess I can say that the qualities I would look for in my colleagues, the qualities I think would lend us the departmental equivalent of harmony or a certain sound, are probably only incidentally related to the socio-culturally freighted identities that draw so much attention nowadays. So the processes I’d institute, whatever they might be, would reflect that.

    But I suppose harmony or sound isn’t the only thing a department must think about. So even though I’m skeptical that diversity in socio-culturally freighted identities ensures the kind of harmony or sound I desire, I do think such diversity might be important for other reasons — perhaps for the more “optical” purpose of having role models for students. (Though I long for the day when purportedly shared socio-culturally freighted identities cease being so important as the bases for fellow-feeling, or for “seeing enough of oneself in another,” or for seeing what you want to be like and think you can be like).

    So if diversity in socio-culturally freighted identities were a goal (rather than a happy byproduct), the only thing I’d see wrong in the “She got hired only because she was a woman” claim is the “only.” Of course she got hired because she’s a woman philosopher, but only partly because of that. (And certainly, I hope, not at all because she’s “good at the woman-philosopher-ish things.”) And her being a woman is a perfectly acceptable consideration in hiring her, because we’ve decided to make diversity a goal (for some reason or other — perhaps for the role-model reasons I outlined). And it should not, as you point out, say anything about her virtues as a philosopher, colleague, etc.

    Again, this is all so damned complex, so it’s hard to see exactly where we disagree, if we do, and how much. Maybe I began all of this by pressing your analogy into service it was never meant to do. Maybe now I’m distinguishing too sharply between the supposed intellectual benefits of an identity-diverse department and the supposed outward- or student-oriented benefits. But I’ve really enjoyed the exchange.

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