Merit in Diversity

Does merit trump diversity? Can’t both coexist and in fact, isn’t it possible that an individual’s merit is enhanced by that individual’s background, skills and experience?

These questions rolled through my brain as I read yesterday’s Financial Post article, Firms adopting diversity policies but few commit to targets for women on boards. The suggestion is that increasing diversity in membership of corporate boards may have a negative impact on the effectiveness of those boards. Some corporations are hesitant to set targets for gender diversity on their boards, the lawyers interviewed explained:

…the most common reason given by companies for not having a policy or targets to encourage gender diversity was that there was a commitment to selecting candidates based on merit.

There it is: the underlying belief that merit is incompatible with gender diversity.

It’s no secret that I firmly believe the legal profession would be greatly strengthened and more effective in delivery of legal services if it were more representative of the diversity of skills, backgrounds and experiences of Canadian society. (I’ve previously written about it here, here, here and here.)

I believe it because there is good evidence to suggest it is true. I believe it because I see it around me. I believe it because I am a woman in the legal profession. I believe it because I need to as the mother of a daughter.

Last week I was fortunate to attend the swearing in ceremony for Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Lindy Choy. These issues came to the fore through a number of remarks made by those congratulating Judge Choy on her appointment.

But it was Sofia Mirza, President of the Manitoba Bar Association, who directly addressed the link between diversity of the legal profession and merit in her remarks to Judge Choy:

Your appointment to the bench is also an important example of the diversity in leadership in our Province which supports that representation on the Bench, reflects the diversity of the citizens of Manitoba.

As the MBA’s first visibly ethnic president, and as a first generation Canadian myself, you are an inspiration to me, of the leadership advancements that can be achieved in our profession. We are blessed in an exciting year where the CBA President, MBA President, Past President of the Law Society, CEO of the Law Society, Dean of the law school, her Associate Dean’s, and the last four appointments to the bench are all women. We have come a long way in our profession and have much to be proud of.

In closing, there is one more important point that I would like to share with the example that your appointment has set for all of us. Appointments are based on education, communication skills, employment skill sets, and experience, to name a few of the factors that are considered. The point I am trying to make is that appointments are based on merit, not gender or the color of one’s skin. Those characteristics did not serve as barriers in the advancement of your career. Your merit is what spoke. You are an example of what shattering the glass ceiling is all about.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


  1. Merit and diversity are not incompatible. That being said, hiring practices that specifically target diversity rather than performance are discriminatory and uncompetitive.

    The concern with introducing targets or quotas to hiring practices is that you are no longer looking for the best lawyer, board member, etc. to hire – you are looking for the best lawyer, board member, etc. from the targeted subgroup. This can work in government where competition is a non issue, but it is an irresponsible hiring strategy for the private sector.

    Let us just agree to hire the best person for the job. In this day, race and gender should be a non factor in hiring – unless of course, it is specifically relevant to the position. A marketing firm that consists of white women may consider diversifying in order to provide a better product to new target audiences. (The point being that it should be a business decision to hire a specific underrepresented group, not a government directive.)

    Retargeting discriminatory practices against over represented groups does not right the wrongs of the past.

    Let equality prevail by treating people equally.

  2. Watson, there are many problems with your analysis.

    First, you can’t just pick the person with the most competence points. Ways of assessing competence quantitatively have various flaws include systematic bias and failing to get at non-quantitative aspects of competence (eg fit).

    Second, that’s not what is going on anyway. The private firms are not engaging in this imaginary practice of finding “the best”. The comparison to government is instructive. In a government law interview, a candidate is asked a number of substantive and behavioural questions. The general practice in a private firm interview is to ask about the piece of creative writing you had in the college review when you were 19, or what India was like.

    The private firm is not looking for competence, they are looking for “fit”. They may be correct to think that finding candidates that fit is more important (or more competitive if you prefer) than finding candidates with the most competence. The problem is that doing so is unfair, in part because “fit” is a vague standard that brings in all sorts of implicit (and even explicit) bias. Government interviews are substantive not because prioritizing substance over fit is competitive, but because the government hiring process aspires to exactly the sort of objective fairness you espouse — actually assessing competence.

    Lastly, hiring who you think is the best is not the same as hiring the best. It may well be that consciously challenging your own perceptions of competence or fit (or whatever criterion) results in hiring someone you wouldn’t have with a different perspective or background and that this will actually strengthen your work or improve your quality of living and understanding. These may be intangible or competitive benefits. There is research on this subject, some of which is linked by the author of the post. You may wish to educate yourself on this issue. The research suggests that actually when you change your hiring practices to increase diversity, you end up with better results even though there are people around complaining that you are no longer hiring “the best”.

    Whenever hiring occurs there will be many similarly competent candidates, and decisions about which to choose that consciously counter-act structural biases will produce a more just result.

  3. You misunderstand my comment.

    I agree that diversity is a good thing. If studies are showing that diversity improves performance than it behooves an employer to make diverse hires. As I said above, my issue is with diversity targets or quotas.

    My critique of government hiring practices is based upon the goal of diversity for the sake of diversity. It is impossible to argue that the primary goal of government hiring is competence when they post a job that a white female is barred from applying to because she is not a visible minority:

    This isn’t an example of a woman who didn’t get a job due to a multi factorial analysis after an interview – she wasn’t considered at all. The argument that this kind of hiring practice results in increased competence is laughable.

    Reducing potential employees to their gender, race, or sexual orientation is deplorable. The only way towards an egalitarian society is by treating people equally.