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Dr. Dan Sutter: What’s good and bad with DEI?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in business and higher education have become controversial. Texas A&M and Texas Tech recently ended DEI statements for faculty hiring and tenure. What is problematic about being welcoming and inclusive?

Let’s consider the underrepresentation of women in engineering. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2016 women earned 21 and 24% of engineering bachelor’s and doctoral degrees. The disparity exists across white, Black, and Hispanic students.

Everyone should be free to pursue the career of their choice regardless of gender or race. Such inclusion I hope is not controversial. Historical discrimination calls for extensive efforts to make women feel welcome today. Ivy League universities, for instance, did not admit women until 1969 (Yale). The service academies only admitted women in 1976.

Gender segregation did not reflect pure animus. Many educators believed separate men’s and women’s schools facilitated learning. The all-male Ivies had the prestigious Seven Sisters as counterparts, colleges like Barnard and Vassar.

Pioneering women in male-dominated fields faced discrimination and harassment. According to a 1960s survey, 90% of law firms would not interview women. Pioneers in law enforcement and firefighting had to overcome horrific harassment.

Discrimination can yield perceptions of hostility long after reforms. It is not enough to treat women in STEM fields fairly; young women must feel welcome. I favor strongly worded commitments to inclusion by universities and businesses.

Will this yield equal representation of men and women in every field? No. Career choices depend on preferences regarding work, which may differ between the sexes.

Consider building skyscrapers. This would be a nightmare job for anyone afraid of heights. If more women are afraid of heights than men, the free choices of individuals may yield a male-dominated job, but one in an economy where everyone can choose their career. Alternatively, drafting women afraid of heights to work on high steel to achieve gender balance is preposterous.

Once we eliminate legal barriers and harassment, can we attribute any STEM gender disparities to preference differences? Not necessarily. We also must consider the shaping of preferences.

Our preferences are at least partially socially constructed, shaped by many influences in our lives. Economists take preferences as given and as reflecting our genuine selves. Suppose young Jack and Jill both want to be rocket scientists. Adults encourage Jack and discourage Jill, who does not choose a STEM career. I think many people fear that these numerous social cues push gender roles on young people.

The interpretation of these cues gets to the DEI controversy. Here I mean the programmatic elements of DEI and the academic theories behind them. Consider the research on microaggressions, “brief and commonplace daily … indignities, whether intentional or unintentional…” But as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt observe in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” intention matters significantly in evaluating action; the difference between murder and an accident is intention.

DEI programs have evolved from critical theory, the application of Marxist analysis to gender and race instead of economic class. Karl Marx viewed the features of markets as deliberately designed by capitalists. Similarly critical theory views slights as deliberate aggressive acts designed to discriminate against women. This worldview views all gender or racial disparities as intentional.

The alternative to Marx’s deliberate design is Adam Smith’s spontaneous (or emergent or unplanned) order. As one example, money evolved spontaneously as people recognized that trading with stones or gold or silver made life easier. The cues and prompts shaping preferences reflect the personal values and actions of millions of Americans, or an unplanned order.

Unplanned orders can be enormously complex, creating the potential for policies to have unintended consequences. Policies can negatively impact the intended beneficiaries. Since the impacts are not intended, we can modify the policies once werecognize the impacts.

Welcoming and inclusive universities are desirable. But programmatic DEI, including litmus tests for hiring, threaten to impose one ideology on higher education, impinging on open inquiry. Programs sold under the banner of diversity may enforce conformity.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H.
Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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