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Pieters Corner: Can diversity be engineered?

In discussions about today’s society and multiculturalism the word is constantly bandied back and forth: diversity. At Leiden University we aspire to ‘diversity and inclusiveness’, and claim that our diversity policies put these core values into practice. We have a Diversity and Inclusiveness Working Plan and a Diversity Office. But what is diversity? When is it successful, what is the chance of it succeeding, and to what extent can a diverse community be ‘engineered’ by an approach of this kind? Our social scientists reflect on this challenge.

Prof.dr. Judi Mesman

'Encourage children to welcome diversity'

–  Judi Mesman, Education and Child Studies

As for so many subjects that affect us as adults, for diversity too it’s crucial to ‘start young’. Although we still know surprisingly little about how exactly children form their opinions about ‘the other’, it is clear that parenting and education have an important role. If parents are available for their children, recognize their needs, and offer appropriate support where necessary, their children tend to be more empathic, more socially adept, and more open to new experiences. Precisely these characteristics are associated in adults with more positive attitudes towards unknown groups. People who have a safe base feel less threatened by ‘the other’ and are thus more open to diversity.

The school parents choose for their children is also important. Children who attend more ethnically diverse schools tend to have fewer prejudices about other ethnic groups. ‘The other’ is immediately less strange and scary. This doesn’t happen entirely automatically: the school also needs to frame this diversity in a positive way. In short, the basis for children welcoming or rejecting diversity is already formed in childhood. So if we want diversity to succeed in the world of adults, we need to start with children!

‘We can’t escape diversity policies’

- Jojanneke van der Toorn, Psychology

One of the obstacles on the path to successful diversity management is resistance to diversity policies. Members of groups that don’t immediately seem to gain from the policies (i.e., members of the majority group) often think it unfair that others are given “special treatment”, or they worry about quality standards. But the intended recipients of the policies (members of minority groups) are also often less than delighted. They would rather succeed on their own merits or are afraid their successes will be played down as undeserved. Moreover, regardless of what group they belong to, people have difficulties with change; we prefer to believe that things will work themselves out, without outside intervention. But in many cases it can be a long wait.

At the current rate, it will be 2054 before there is an equal distribution of men and women in the professorial ranks, for instance, and that’s not even to mention ethnicity. The old image of the academic as a white male turns out to be extremely recalcitrant. We know from research that stereotypes and prejudices are difficult to change, and that they influence our behaviour particularly in ambiguous situations and when we are under time pressure. So we can’t escape diversity polices; not just to attract a greater diversity of students and employees, but also to create an inclusive environment to encourage them to stay.

There is definite room for improvement in the way we communicate these policies: both to increase support for the policy and to facilitate inclusion. Even if diversity does not have any clear positive or negative effects in itself, in policy communication the emphasis tends to lie on the strategic advantages for the organization (the “business case” for diversity). People rarely stress that aspiring to a diverse and inclusive working environment is quite simply fair and just, regardless of the outcomes.

Nevertheless, moral arguments are perhaps just as convincing as pragmatic ones. Research by social psychologists shows, for instance, that people do indeed believe it is important to do “the right thing” and like to work for morally sound organizations. In addition, moral arguments communicate the intrinsic value of inclusion: that you should be free to be yourself because of who you are and not because the organization stands to gain.

- Paul Mepschen, Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

Diversity is an extremely difficult issue for social scientists – especially in the current historical period of neoliberal globalisation and mass immigration. ‘Diversity has become habitual and part of the everyday human landscape,’ argues Susanne Wessendorf in her inspiring book on the multi-ethnic borough of Hackney, London. Working on Steven Vertovec's super-diversity paradigm, she emphasises the fact that diversity has become commonplace.

In part, I go along with Wessendorf’s thinking and work. Yet there is clearly another side to the current situation of super-diversity, as I show in my own research into autochthony in the Netherlands. I hold that today’s global society is characterized by a dialectics of flow and closure. Increasing heterogeneity may lead to the normalization of difference, but may also go hand in hand with an increasing focus on local identification and exclusion.

In a world characterised by flux, a great deal of energy is invested in fixing, controlling, and freezing identities. As I see it, the current situation in a country like the Netherlands is a good example of this. On the one hand, we have increasing diversity, while on the other hand, we also experience the powerful ascent of culturalist discourses – to control and fix identity. The culturalist common sense that has now been firmly constituted in this country produces an increasing focus on and awareness of the alterity of the other. As a result, it brings into being a commonplace culturalism that signifies a process of drawing boundaries: between those who are ethnicised as autochthonous – entitled to soil and nation regardless of their cultural choices – and those who are construed as guests or strangers associated with ethnic, cultural, or religious alterity.

It is for this pressing reason that we need to focus on the construction, negotiation, and appropriation of exclusionary discourses of belonging – especially in these times of super-diversity. In short, in these complex times diversity and heterogeneity can only be understood in relation to identity fixture and the rise of a politics of exclusion. The two are inextricably linked.

'The darker side of good causes'

– Frank de Zwart, Political Science

Leiden University is a front-runner in the Netherlands in terms of its diversity and inclusiveness policy, aspiring in this way to open up opportunities for developing talent and giving an impetus to innovation and creativity. In this light, diversity policies have predominantly positive connotations: it’s all about grasping opportunities and fostering creativity. But to a certain extent this business case slightly glosses over the more fundamental and less pleasant reasons behind diversity policies: meritocratic policy leads to inequality with a tint, or with a certain gender.

This latter fact is unacceptable, and in order to combat and rectify this situation many countries, including the Netherlands, have long pursued policies of affirmative action. However, affirmative action – positive discrimination – tends to have negative connotations, which is why a helpful little euphemism like ‘diversity policy’ can be so welcome. In the Netherlands affirmative action is subject to strict legal requirements because it constitutes an exception to the principle of equal treatment as enshrined in the Equal Treatment Act. Diversity policies, on the other hand, have no legal basis. Yet in practice it is difficult to distinguish between these types of policy. This gives some cause for concern, since affirmative action is notorious for producing unintended adverse effects.

The most important of these adverse effects is that it creates new inequalities, particularly within the categories that are the recipients of affirmative action. Another problem is stigmatization and ‘mismatching’ (people end up working slightly above their level, which causes them all sorts of difficulties). And then there’s the problem of demarcation: why women, but not ethnic groups; why some ethnic groups and not others; why not ethnic subgroups, etc. – and who actually gets to make these decisions? This problem is immediately recognizable in the four key objectives of 'Our vision of diversity': appointments and a position in research are to be stimulated for women, whereas ethnic minorities are as yet only marked out for ‘stimulation of study success’. Ultimately the problem of demarcation usually leads to the proliferation of claims and groups of beneficiaries.  

In sum, the business case for diversity sounds attractive, but caution is called for because good causes can easily blind us to the unintended adverse effects.

Pieter's Corner – a soapbox for social scientists

Pieter’s Corner is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner. Researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.