Diversity and representation – anti quotas or antiquotas?

Yesterday was World Statistics Day, though I still hanker for it being World Political Arithmetick Day!

Diversity in society is an area in which statistics can shine a bright light. We still see too much a lack of diversity whether in the company boardroom, the judiciary, legislatures, management and so on.

And, two – seemingly mundane, but not – day-to-day examples are the make-up of interview panels, and conference speaker lists and discussion panels. I’ve heard from too many all-male panels (I admit to being part of such). On the flip side, I’ve also been interviewed for a Russell Group university job by a panel of three women – though, to be fair, it didn’t occur to me till weeks later.

[Note: the following is some musing. I’d love to hear if any others have already had these ideas – I’m sure they have. And I’ve love to hear of potential pitfalls.]

Gender is, of course, not the only personal characteristic that gets under-/over-represented. But with nearly half of people being male, and around half being female in nearly all societies, it can be the most obvious area of imbalanced representation. Remember, also, that gender is not entirely a binary split, something that is only now being properly recognised.

What can we do? Commonly this is done using quotas, eg ‘there shall be at least [N] women’. Often this is the bolt-on variation where N is hastily increased from 0 to 1 – the classic example is planning a conference panel, three speakers are identified for invitation and then someone says ‘hang on, they’re all men’. An invitation to a woman is then ‘bolted on’.

Quotas are often framed around the representation of the (traditionally) under-represented group or groups, eg “for a discussion panel, at least one-third shall be Z”. I’ve too often heard someone dismiss another’s involvement as their being (among) the token Z.

But what if we used ‘antiquotas’, framing in terms of over-representation – in neutral language where possible, eg “for a discussion panel, no more than [fraction of your choice] shall be from any one gender identity”.

Might this address the issue of over-representation better? Would it be helpful in representing those whose gender identity is neither male nor female?

To this I would add a lottery.

Rather than organisations listing speakers for invitation till the appropriate number is reached, put in a hat all possible speakers whose expertise is above a certain threshold and whose contribution would be valuable. A person whose name is picked out of the hat is then to be invited unless this would breach an antiquota.

Might this also help address the issue of the over-invitation of the great-and-good, and sometimes whose message has been heard too often? (Of course, there be one or two people whose are so pre-eminent that they have to be invited before any other.)

Whatever method of choosing is used it would be good to see organisers publish prominently their criteria for invitation of speakers. It would allow delegates to make an informed choice about their attendance – or otherwise.

NB I have sought to use non-discriminatory language above. If I have fallen flat in any way do let me know what would be appropriate.


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