John Chisholm: Workplaces and Universities Should Embrace Holistic Diversity and Inclusion

Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with Silicon Valley entrepreneur John Chisholm about his holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, merit and combating polarization in the workplace—crucial topics to donors today. In our interview, Chisholm discussed the definition of diversity and inclusion and how his holistic approach is different than typical Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. He also addressed the need to include the full spectrum of diversity in trainings, including aspects like geographic diversity. 

Chisholm was a trustee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2015-2021, served as president and chair of the worldwide MIT Alumni Association and is a current trustee of the Santa Fe Institute. He is the author of “Unleash Your Inner Company: 10 Steps to Discover, Launch, and Scale Your Ideal Business.”

Q: You are an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion. Tell us why.

Diversity and inclusion are invaluable to any group of individuals, whether within a business, university or nation. Diverse lived experiences and viewpoints improve our thinking, sharpen debate and foster innovation. Diversity and inclusion can help mitigate and reverse long-held prejudices and harmful, growing trends in polarization. Much, if not all, of the improvements in the quality and standards of living that the world has enjoyed since the Middle Ages are due to an ever-widening diversity of individuals with unique skills and viewpoints in our midst and thinking. 

Q: How do you define diversity?

A very encompassing definition that I like is, “The degree to which a group of individuals represent or demonstrate a range of different skills, knowledge, cultures, identities, geographies, experiences, ideologies, philosophies, values and personalities, thereby providing the greatest opportunity to learn and grow from each other.” To underscore an often-overlooked point, diversity is an aspect not of an individual, but of a group of individuals. 

I categorize the diversity of a group of individuals by attributes that fall into three groups: 

  1. Physical/identity characteristics: These are mostly immediately visible and include race, gender, age, ethnicity, language, disability and sexual orientation. 
  2. Cognitive/intellectual attributes: These are less visible and include abstract vs. concrete thinking; risk aversion vs. risk taking; long- vs. short-term time horizons; collaborative vs. independent work styles; relationship vs. transactional orientations in dealing with others; and introversion vs. extroversion. 
  3. Related attributes: One’s “extended phenotype”— to use the words of biologist Richard Dawkins — that includes geographical location; industry; household income; veteran status; years of education; first-generation college attendance; civic associations, hobbies and sports; and musical, sartorial and tonsorial preferences. 

Some attributes, such as faith, political orientation and sexual orientation, may cross both identity and cognition. In “The Righteous Mind,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies six foundations of morality — care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity — that individuals and cultures value differently. In “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies,” University of Michigan and Santa Fe Institute scholar Scott Page shows that cognitive/intellectual diversity makes boards, committees and work groups better at decision-making, while physical/identity attributes contribute only indirectly, to the extent that they indicate cognitive/intellectual diversity. I call this framework holistic diversity because it encompasses the entire person — everything that makes us unique as individuals.

Q: Is this approach the focus of most DEI initiatives today?

Generally, no. Most DEI initiatives today focus narrowly on the first category, physical/identity, and often even just race and gender within that category. Race and gender are two of hundreds of attributes that make us unique as individuals. In fact, by selectively emphasizing just a few attributes, we often make groups less diverse in other attributes. 

Q: Why is there a tendency to focus on just physical/identity characteristics?

As Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman says, it’s a matter of thinking fast versus thinking slow. It’s easy to identify somebody’s race and gender. That’s thinking fast. But fast thinking is the very behavior that drives unwanted sexual and racial discrimination. To fight those mindsets and behaviors, we must think slowly and deliberately about people, recognizing their full value and uniqueness beyond just what is superficially visible. 

As Martin Luther King said, “I want my children to be judged by the quality of their character, not by the color of their skin.” Character isn’t immediately obvious. We must think slowly and deliberately about somebody to assess his or her character. The same holds true in our DEI initiatives.

Q: You say that by considering just a few diversity attributes, you may reduce diversity in other attributes. Why is that?

Consider MIT. MIT’s well-funded Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives focus on race, gender and a few other attributes. Many important, less-visible attributes are ignored. One such attribute is geography.  For example, data from 2018 show that MIT undergraduate enrollments disproportionately came from U.S. states that tend to be more urban and less rural. That has much greater consequence than you might think; the disparity isn’t merely geographical, but also economic, social, cultural and political.

More than the U.S. population overall, individuals from those least-represented states tend to value individual rewards and responsibility, local civic ties, frugality, a work ethic and nuclear families. They have center-right sensibilities, tending to be more fiscally and socially conservative. They are lower income overall. Most of the states are red. I call them the “Other Half.” They represent about half of the U.S. population, and as a percentage of their numbers, may well be the most underrepresented segment among MIT undergraduates, not to mention on elite university campuses overall. Yet we never talk about them. Despite their underrepresentation, they are completely absent from our DEI initiatives. 

Q: You say that holistic diversity enables the highest standards. How is that?

It’s simple math. If you consider hundreds of diversity attributes rather than just two or three, you not only achieve greater diversity overall, but you have a much larger pool from which to choose candidates with the best qualifications. 

Q: What are the consequences of the narrow, physical/identity view of diversity?

One consequence is resentment. If an Other Half high school senior has, or perceives she has, less chance to be admitted to an elite university than an equally qualified racial minority student – who is, in fact, less underrepresented on campus than the Other Half senior – that will arouse resentment. Deservedly so. To avoid such outcomes, DEI needs to use many dimensions with a light touch rather than a few dimensions with a hammer. 

Resentment fuels polarization, a second consequence of these initiatives, and possibly America’s greatest existential threat. Social media and partisan press, which increasingly expose consumers only to the views of those who already agree with us, and which further invite us to stereotype those who do not, drive polarization as well. We urgently need to find common ground with those outside of our in-groups to keep our civil society from breaking apart. More than any other institutions, universities can model open discussion and tolerance to avert these outcomes. But this can happen only if groups with diverse viewpoints are represented on campus. 

A third consequence is undermining the very individuals we intend to serve. No one should have to wonder whether they were accepted, hired or promoted because of gender, race, sexual orientation or other physical/identity characteristics rather than merit. In my personal life, I came out as gay in my late 30s. Prior to that, if I were chosen, promoted or elected, I knew it was due to what I had contributed or accomplished, not to the fact that I am gay. Now that I am out, I can’t always be sure. No one should have to deal with that insecurity and indignity. 

Q: So, what is the right way to conduct diversity initiatives?

Here are some suggestions:

Embrace a broad – and holistic – set of diversity attributes, including all three groups: physical/identity, cognitive/intellectual and related attributes. Again, by expanding candidate pools to include all three of these attribute groups, businesses and universities can achieve the most inclusive diversity, the highest standards, and are less likely to overlook and reduce diversity in important attributes.

Assess recruitment processes in businesses and academia to understand where and why shortfalls are occurring, especially for less-visible attributes. Resist the temptation to reduce standards, a recipe for mediocrity; to select or admit candidates based upon inclusion in any group. Leverage marketing and outreach to grow candidate pools instead. 

Seek out and include the voices of those whose viewpoints differ from yours, even if they are few and deeply closeted, whether in the workplace or on campus. Emphasize the importance of intellectual as well as identity diversity. It is easy to stereotype underrepresented groups; refuse to do so. 

Recognize our vast common ground with others who have different views. Whether it’s eliminating poverty, protecting the environment or achieving world peace, those with different viewpoints typically share similar goals but deviate in approach. This recognition invites a discussion of the benefits, costs and unintended consequences of various approaches and shifts the discussion from ideological to practical. This approach is harder work and less satisfying short term than stereotyping and exclusion, but it is a win-win long term for businesses, universities, our nation and the world. 

Join or support Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of thousands of faculty, administrators, students and alumni committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in universities.

Call for sensitivity and civility. Encourage, praise and celebrate civil engagement and robust debate based on mutual respect. 

Summon courage to do what is right, not merely popular. This is especially true for our society’s leaders.

Q: How easy or hard will this be? 

This will not be easy in today’s environment. But it is achievable. Diversifying holistically in business and academia and addressing shortfalls in less-visible cognitive/intellectual and related attributes, may well be as unpopular today as addressing on-campus discrimination against Jews in the 1930s, Blacks in the 1950s and gays in the 1970s. But confronting those instances of exclusion in the past has paid huge dividends, helping our nation and universities survive and flourish. Our diversity initiatives, if holistic — encompassing the entire individual — will do the same today.

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