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How Diversity Can Support Excellence in Pursuit of Health

On rejecting the false choice between diversity, inclusion, and excellence

Key points

  • A common objection to diversity and inclusion efforts in organizations is that they sacrifice excellence.
  • We do achieve excellence in diversity, especially when we broaden the meaning of "diversity" to include a variety of perspectives and experience.
  • Accounting for true diversity is what allows us to effectively promote health for the entire population.

In April, United Airlines pledged to train 5,000 new pilots by 2030 with the intention of no less than half of these new students being women or people of color. With this announcement came pushback, informed by a common objection to diversity and inclusion efforts, one which extends all the way back to the start of debate around initiatives like affirmative action.

The objection is that, in seeking to make greater room for historically underrepresented groups, we risk elevating concerns about identity over a commitment to excellence, to bringing in the best people regardless of skin color, sex/gender identity, or other characteristics that have led to past marginalization. These concerns were particularly potent with regard to the airline industry, where anything less than excellence in the cockpit could put lives at risk.

United’s pledge aligned with ongoing, and welcome, efforts to promote greater diversity and inclusion within organizations. Yet, as the elevation of diversity and inclusion have become a part of the fabric of more and more institutions, we are hearing more frequently the objection that diversity and inclusion are in conflict with excellence, undermining the meritocracy which sustains effective organizations.

For our institutions to be strong enough to support health, those working within them must be able to respond to this objection. With that in mind, I share a few thoughts about the supposed conflict between excellence and our pursuit of diversity, and this pursuit’s broader implications for health.

The positive effects of diversity within organizations

It is first worth asking: What are the practical effects of diversity within organizations? A 2017 analysis by McKinsey & Company makes the point simply. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were, in 2017, 21 percent likelier to enjoy financial performance above the national industry median. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on their executive teams were 33 percent likelier to enjoy such performance.

These data support what is, to many of us, intuitive about greater diversity in organizations: It is a positive influence. Diversity means more potential for new ideas and approaches—the lifeblood of any dynamic group. The following three points help support, I think, a vision of diversity that is central to advancing the excellence necessary for building a healthier world.

The definition of excellence

First, much depends on how we choose to define “excellence.” For the pilot, for example, excellence means being able to consistently provide a safe flight for passengers and crew, and there is no getting around this definition. However, in other contexts, there is ample room for rethinking our definition of excellence.

Consider, for example, the field of rocket science. In many respects, excellence is quite specific in how it supports this field. The equations which send a rocket into space are not subject to different forms of interpretation, and there is no margin of error in their use. However, there is much room for diversity of thought as it relates to the type of rockets used and setting their potential destinations.

When excellence is defined in these terms—as a still-meritocratic pursuit, but one which is less bound by settled habits and conventional wisdom—it can help our endeavors reach new heights.

Rethinking the meaning of "diversity"

Second, just as we can be well-served by reimagining our notions of excellence, we can also benefit from rethinking just what we mean by diversity.

Confusion can arise when the impression is drawn that diversity is entirely a matter of making sure a certain composition of identity groups is represented, to the exclusion of all other considerations. It is worth asking—is this true diversity? At some level, of course yes, as a baseline introduction, it suffices as a kind of diversity—and it is certainly better than where we were in the past—but it is also possible to think more expansively about diversity.

A key benefit of bringing together people with different experiences and identities is the different perspectives their unique experiences can inform. This includes different opinions, skill sets, political beliefs, and spiritual outlooks. Creating space for viewpoint diversity is, in many ways, the most difficult element of supporting diversity, because it involves making room for those with whom we may disagree. Yet, if we shy from creating this space, we leave undone the full work of diversity and inclusion.

Inclusive excellence

This leads well into the third point, which is a caution against the zero-sum thinking that can characterize how we consider the relationship between diversity and excellence.

Just as viewpoint diversity means rejecting the zero-sum thinking that does not tolerate the presence of competing ideas, the broader pursuit of diversity means accepting that diversity and excellence are not in any way mutually exclusive. Indeed, the idea of inclusive excellence has made steady inroads in the conversation about diversity, particularly in the academic space.

Given the data in support of diversity’s positive effects on organizations and teams, it is clear that embracing diversity need not involve tradeoffs at the expense of excellence. Core to this is ensuring that the diversity we embrace is full diversity, including viewpoint diversity. When diversity is able to flourish, when it can support a full range of identities, backgrounds, perspectives, and intellectual leanings, it is poised to be a powerful force for maximizing human potential in any setting.

Why diversity and inclusion matter

Why does this matter? Why is it so important that we make a robust case for diversity and inclusion, by engaging with objections to it?

It matters because diversity and inclusion are central to creating a healthier world. Fundamentally, health is concerned with supporting the wellbeing of populations, and by “populations,” we mean as many people as possible. We cannot effectively promote health among such a diverse constituency without reflecting, and learning from, the people we serve.

So, the question is not “can we have diversity and excellence in our pursuit of health?” It is, “can we even have excellence in thinking about health without diversity?” It is only through the pursuit of excellence, supported by diversity and inclusion, that we can navigate the choppy waters of this moment to arrive at a healthier shore.