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Transcript: Workplace diversity: Think functionality

Workplace diversity: Think functionality

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Karl Moore: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Katherine Klein who is a senior professor at the Wharton School.

Good afternoon, Katherine.

Katherine Klein: Good afternoon, Karl. Good to be here.

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KM: Katherine, one of the things you have studied is diversity and it seems the arguments for diversity, the pros and cons, have shifted over the years. Why do we want to have a more diverse work force now and is there a time when we don't want diversity in a work force?

KK: One of the things I would say in response to your question is that it's really important to be clear about what kind of diversity we are looking at. So in my work we have tried to distinguish is if it is gender diversity, race diversity or functional background diversity [because]these things have different effects. What we know is functional diversity, within a team, often makes a team better.

When we look at racial diversity or gender diversity and ask, "Do teams perform better because they are more racially mixed or there's a better gender balance?" the answer is no, as a general rule, they don't perform better – they don't perform worse but they don't perform better. So, to my knowledge and to the kind of research I've done, you wouldn't expect teams to perform better and you wouldn't expect them to perform worse. So what is the business case?

I think the business case is much more around bringing in talent and that when we give in to biases or if we are looking for just one kind of person and that's only men we don't look at all the women. When we are looking at only one racial group then we aren't looking at all the racial groups or ethnic groups. It is much more about bringing in talent then thinking, "Oh, I have a gender-balanced group of engineers [therefore]they are going to produce a better software product." In some cases we might imagine that would be the case but in many cases it's not.

KM: Katherine, there are positives to diversity for sure – bringing in talent that would have been ignored in the past so great opportunity. Is there occasions or tasks where actually homogeneity is a better performer? Regardless of who that group is, is homogeneity in some cases a better approach?

KK: It is an interesting question, and again we would have to discuss homogeneity of what? Certainly there could be benefits of having homogeneity of mindset, shared understanding of purpose, and shared goals in terms of speed of decision making; we don't have any dissension, we are all on the same page and so we can make a decision quickly. That kind of homogeneity could be beneficial if the goal was speed of decision making. It is not going to be beneficial if the goal is depth of thinking, surfacing of alternative ideas, innovation and so on. Are there benefits of having a more demographic homogeneity? I don't think we see it.

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