On diversity

Often, in academic life, we are asked to report on our "diversity activities" or directed to try to increase diversity in our admissions and hiring endeavours. The problem is that in the absence of a definition or even guidelines about what constitutes a "diversity activity", we are forced to guess what these might be. In my view, this is problematic because it can easily devolve into an exercise that breaks up humans into unrealistic, constituent "canonical identities". Should I report on the sexual preferences or the cultural and racial profile of my students, for instance? Or should I just describe the chromosomal makeup of people I collaborate with, as well as my efforts to increase the numbers of people with a certain chromosomal makeup? I find all of this not only pointless but based on unscientific premises about "identity" that ought to be left in the XX century. I have a collaborator who is XY chromosomally but who is outwardly a female and is attracted to females---should I report on that and how? I refuse to. For me, in an appraisal, admissions or hiring exercise, looking at human features other than their relevant productivity is in bad taste and ultimately unfair to all involved, which is why I object to doing it.

I believe that if a goal of our organization is to increase its population diversity, the best that we can do is to increase the universal appeal of our subject matter. Certainly biology and psychology as fields are quite diverse in their workforce because their subject matter is of universal appeal. Computing, on the other hand, is not as diverse simply because its subject matter has been very restricted to questions about computing per se, rather than about solving real-world or human-nature problems. Traditional computing has not been very appealing to women, but it has not been very appealing to most men either. It appeals to a special type of person who is interested in abstract computing per se---that kind of person tends to be a certain type of man, but certainly most men are also not interested in computing per se.

The field of Informatics, a fairly new term in the US and the general area where I work, is more focused on problem-solving and human and biological questions. Therefore, it is poised to change the appeal of computing---at least that is what we are betting on. My point is that if we want to increase diversity in the informatics or computing, let us focus of making our subject matter more universally appealing, rather than counting the gender, racial, cultural, and sexual preference attributes of people---all of which are more or less fuzzy and ultimately undefinable.

Yesterday I saw the movie doubt, in which Meryl Street's character, a nun, says that in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one has to part in the opposite direction of the Christian message (or something like that). I feel that the goals of the academic pushes for increasing (the ever-undefined) diversity are a bit like that. But I am fundamentally opposed to the view that one can fight racism, sexism and the like, by counting race and gender---whatever way it goes it is still discrimination. We are all better off fighting for universal human rights and, in the context of academia, pushing for universal or at least wider appeal of the fields that have cornered themselves in very hermetic subject matters.

As Graham Greene used to say, "there are many countries in our blood, but only one person". To "countries" I would add "cultures" and "phenotypic traits".

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