Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Diversity for Show, Diversity for Dough

One of the angriest conversations going on in the West is over how to achieve "diversity" in various organizations. The word is seldom given much thought, with, I believe, most people just lazily assuming that every organization in their society should have a demographic profile identical to that of the larger society around it. That tribal groups specializing in particular activities – Lebanese traders in West Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, motel owners from Gujarat in the U.S. – is a very old pattern escapes their notice.

Pepsico has just announced a new CEO, Indra K. Nooyi. In addition to being female, Ms Nooyi was born in India. (I believe she is now an American citizen.) How does she do in terms of her diversity bona fides? It is hard to say. She is female, which is good. She is nonwhite, which is also good. But, alas, she is Asian, and so as a member of The Model Minority she may not get much credit for that among the sorts of people whose lives revolve around tabulating "executives of color." (When I was in graduate school I once heard a speaker express happiness that so many Asians were at his rally, which was for the creation of a Chicano Studies Center that has since been created after the usual shakedowns. The speaker scornfully referred to the way whites treated Asians not on the basis of their achievements which, compared to the American average, are impressive, but simply as honorary whites." An Asian speaker then agreed that Asians should not see themselves as equals but should get with the whole people-of-color program.)

But I suspect none of this entered into the Pepsico board’s thinking. Ms Nooyi was not put there to satisfy any diversity goals and timetables but because her performance during twelve years at the company suggested to the board of directors that she was likely to be the best candidate for maximizing shareholder value. Indeed her whole career is testimony of the ability of the multinational corporation to be the best friend of equal opportunity the world has ever seen. She began at an Indian textile firm before moving to the Indian subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and from there to rising up the ranks at the Boston Consulting Group and Motorola. At these firms she is a player on a team with a particular objective, profits, and for all players everything, including prejudice, must be subverted to that. Her skills and achievements are all that matters. (Indeed even harshly criticized anti-American remarks she made in a speech do not seem to have handicapped her much.) The contrast with politics, where separating your group from others is not only not costly but actually an asset, is vivid. Legislatures, school boards and other government entities where all the spoils are zero-sum will never have enough "diversity" to satisfy those whose careers are built on criticizing its absence. But in the meantime the world’s multinationals go on about their business (literally) of having everyone get along so everyone can make money.


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