- Is diversity a form of ‘reservation’ – that goes against meritocracy?
Some organizations have begun to lead the way for ‘diversity targets’ and others have begun to follow. But there can often be an undercurrent of anger against this initiative.
Opinions like “If women are meritorious enough – they will make it to the top automatically. We can make sure they get equal opportunity. Anything beyond that is devaluing merit and discriminating against men“
A very painful example is when a general category student who scores 90% does not get admission into the beloved IIT, but an OBC candidate with 65% does. This is often cited as an example of reverse discrimination and placing caste over merit.
If these questions and the underlying anger remain unanswered, diversity initiatives risk being reduced to virtue signaling. This will sabotage the larger goal i.e. inclusion. How can I include someone who I feel is ‘less deserving’ than me?
How can I include someone who I feel is ‘less deserving’ than me?
The case for diversity
Coming back to the student example, I used to vehemently oppose reservations.
Until I asked myself a question: “If we removed all reservations tomorrow in all the IITs, what will happen?”
There is no guess work needed. We already know the huge gap in cut-off marks between caste categories. All IITs will be filled only with general category students…possibly dominated by few castes.
In short, the best institutions in the country would unintentionally be filled with select castes, with zero participation from other castes.
Is that what we want? As a society, as a nation?
I would personally feel a little uncomfortable with such ‘homogeneity’ in our academic institutions which are supposed to be breeding grounds for innovation, thinking, multiple perspectives, means to uplift society etc
On the other hand, I would not be surprised if someone says that the people who scored less deserve to lose.
The case for merit
“So what? The best person wins. If people from certain castes are the most meritorious – they get the seats. Who stops the other castes? If they are hungry enough, hard working enough – they will make it too”
This begs the question: What does ‘best person’ mean? What does being more ‘meritorious’ mean?
Merit for WHAT?
What is merit really?
Merit is always evaluated in context of a goal. Are people who score the highest marks in a test necessarily the most successful in life?
In the context of a quiz competition, maybe I will go with the person who can recollect the most trivia and facts.
For forming an athletics team, maybe I would not care about fact recollection and academics at all.
In the context of a group project, would you prefer a nerd who scores highest in the class, but is a bad team worker…or another student who is not that great academically – but is great at other qualities like team work, taking responsibility etc? The nerd will simply be not eligible.
In the context of work, the same question applies. Marks/revenue performance are one of the parameters – but are they everything?
Does a person who scores 90% only deserve to be an engineer and not the one who scores 65%?
Probably not. Then how do we draw the line?
Merit and Eligibility criteria
Remember the ‘minimum height criteria’ for some rides at the amusement park? If you are below 4 feet, you cannot get the onto the ride at all. But if you are 6.5 feet, it does not make you more ‘deserving’ than the someone who is 4.5 feet tall!
If I confused the eligibility criteria with merit, I risk having only basketball players, taller races on the rides. Teenagers, shorter races, many women will miss out. Imagine how they would feel! Especially if they are told they don’t ‘deserve’ to get on the rides.
To qualify for a role, or a seat in an institution – there are certain minimum eligibility criteria that needs to be defined. It could be marks, entrance test scores, appraisal scores.
If the minimum eligibility criteria to get into an engineering school is defined as 45% marks – then whether you like it or not – as far as marks are concerned… a person who scored 95% is as eligible to get in, as a person who scored 65%.
The problem now is not merit, but the supply/demand gap.
The demand/supply challenge
If we have 500 eligible candidates – ideally they all deserve to get in. Quality of all academic institutions should improve and be equally good. The pyramid in organizations should be keep growing to absorb all eligible candidates. That is the real problem to be solved.
But of course reality does not conform to our wishes.
What if we have 500 eligible candidates but only 50 seats/positions/roles available?
We have to now define some selection criteria.
No matter what selection criteria we define, only 50 will make the cut. 450 will lose out. Does it mean they were less deserving?
So now the question becomes: How should the selection criteria be defined?
This in turn depends on what mix will serve the larger goals of the institution.
For example, in the H1B Visa selection process, a ‘lottery’ is used! People are randomly selected from the eligible pool!
Does it mean that the selected people were more ‘deserving’?
Are the people selected in the H1B visa lottery more deserving than the others?
Does this change if we have some defined selection criteria, instead of a random lottery?
For example, in schools/organizations, the selection criteria would depend on what serves their purpose the best.
Maybe some are ok with any 50 out of the 500 eligible candidates – like the H1B lottery. Others might want only the top academic scorers. Or only top IQ. Or a mix of IQ and EQ. Maybe some want diversity in terms of caste/gender, or nationalities.
This has nothing to do with the individual, and everything to do with merit defined in the context of the larger goals of the organization.
No matter what selection criteria you define – since all 500 were eligible, someone is going to feel ‘unfairly missed out’. This does not mean that the reality is unfair. It just means that the parameters that made us eligible are not the only parameters that will determine selection.
The parameters that made us ‘eligible’ are not the only parameters that will determine ‘selection’.
Reframing our ideas of ‘fairness’
A man who is vying to get into the executive committee might initially feel “I made more revenues, and yet she will win just cos she is a woman. It is so unfair!” He can never really feel genuinely ‘inclusive’ towards that woman. And if the emotional injury is deep enough, he might end up bearing a grudge towards women in general! So much for our inclusion efforts!
But once he is able to see the full picture, his interpretation might change to “The executive committee needs high performers and diverse gender perspectives. There are many male and female candidates who show high performance already. And spots available are much lesser. And since the eligible pool is already filled with a lot of men, I would have to show much higher performance to make the cut against all the male candidates.”
Only when this acceptance and reframing happens, will diversity initiatives be welcomed genuinely by everybody. And only when that happens, when nobody feels ‘unfairly treated’ can inclusion stand a chance.
- We often confuse eligibility criteria with selection criteria. Merit determines the former. The latter is needed due to the demand/supply gap.
- Once people make the cut for the minimum eligibility criteria, the challenge is not merit – but supply/demand. There are always fewer opportunities than eligible candidates.
- Selection now has to be seen in the larger context of the organization, and might have multiple parameters involved. Somebody who is much higher in one parameter always has the risk of losing out on some other parameter.
- Some of the parameters might be outside our control(gender, caste) which makes it seem unfair. The anger is understandable, but this does not make reality unfair. Just natural.
- To ensure that our diversity initiatives do not backfire and sabotage our inclusion goals, we need to help people to see the bigger picture and reframe their beliefs, regardless of how wrong or invalid we think they are.
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Vijayraj Kamat is a Partner at OD Alternatives. He brings in a blend of analytics and big 4 experience to his passion of Organizational Development and psychology