Sun 8 Feb, 2009
Tags: Class, Diversity, Gender, Race
Columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes today about the overwhelming domination of Wall Street by male executives.
I’m not sure that I agree with Kristof’s conclusion that what the global banking industry needed in order to avoid its current woes was “women, women and women.” However, he devotes most of the column to highlighting important research showing that in areas such as race, gender, and class, diversity improves the quality of group decision-making.
This research offers a distinct rationale for diversity in education and in the workplace, beyond questions of fairness to the individuals involved or other arguments about diversity which may not garner universal agreement.
This particular justification for diversity is also more palatable to many of those who are skeptical of affirmative action or multiculturalism, being focused on generating measurably superior outcomes for the entire institution or for society as a whole. Moreover, this approach defines diversity in a subversive manner: it assumes that diversity today means having different experiences and perspectives, while giving no credence to beliefs that there are fundamental differences between people on account of race, ethnicity, gender, or other superficial traits.
Kristof points to several studies which highlight the role of gender in specific decision-making contexts. One set of researchers, for instance, found that men (but not women) were more likely to make high-risk decisions when their audience was of equal social status, which the authors suggest may be an evolutionary response to the need to compete for females.
He also reviews an article by Lu Hong and Scott Page from 2000, in which they created a formal model to analyze the superior decision-making abilities of diverse groups.
Kristof could have mentioned other important work on diversity by Hong and Page, including a 2007 paper on decision-making by agents using generated and interpreted signals and a notable 2004 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which argued that when choosing a group of decision-makers, randomly-chosen but diverse participants are likely to out-perform elite participants with similar backgrounds.
Scott Page is also the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007). His argument is that group decision-making is best when the group reflects unique perspectives and ways of thinking. The key, according to Page, lies in bringing together individuals with different backgrounds and life experiences; the result will be a messy process, but one which out-performs groups of like-minded individuals chosen on the basis of extensive experience or high IQ.