“Diversity of Ideas” Is Not Enough

Last week, after grumbling my way through a Seattle Times “Livewire” panel that took on the region’s transportation problems through the frame of “gridlock” (a framework that, among many other problems, erases the non-driver perspective) I posted on Facebook about what I saw as another glaring omission on the panel: The presence of anyone who was not a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class man. Under the caption, “Hairline diversity, at least,” I posted the following photo:


Onstage, from left to right, are: Seattle Times editorial board member Thanh Tan, a young woman of color; Human Transit author Jarrett Walker; INRIX president Bryan Mistele; Washington State Transportation Center director Mark Hallenbeck; and Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. Here’s a better image of the foursome, from the Times’ event website:

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A few minutes later, I followed up with a couple of paragraphs about how difficult it can be to be a female writer who writes about traditionally “male” subjects—politics, land use, and transportation—when the networks that promote writers and thinkers and doers in those fields is so overwhelmingly dominated by men. As any woman who writes about “hard” issues undoubtedly knows, the bro-dominated world of blogs and think tanks and panels and radio appearances can be a neverending feedback loop—you write something and I’ll push it out to my readers and they’ll push it out to their Facebook friends and one of them will invite you to their event and you’ll meet another guy who wants to publish you and so on and on, ad masculinum.

There’s even a tumblr dedicated to the phenomenon I witnessed the other night: “Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel!” In it, readers are invited to “Document all-male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts.” Each all-male panel or event gets a “Hoffsome” seal of approval. For example, this all-male panel focused on “empowering women”:

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Closer to home, a panel of men discussed “the role of women in technology: the male perspective” last week, because it’s high time men were given a voice in this important issue, as opposed to–and I am not making this up, it’s right there in the panel description–holding the “conversation about advancing women in technology … in isolation.”

Anyway, given that the all-male panel is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it’s now a meme , I wasn’t too surprised when my Facebook feed filled up with sympathetic “likes” and comments such as “What is this, a forum on what it means to be a rich white man?” I was a little taken aback, however, when two Seattle Times higher-ups—editorial board member Tan and editor Kathy Best—jumped into the comments to defend their decision  to pick only well-off, white, middle-aged men to discuss the issue of transportation, an issue that arguably hits women, people of color, and low-income people closer to home than a demographic that has the greatest access to convenient transport.

Their defense will sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever slapped their head in an all-white-male space and muttered, “How could they not have NOTICED that?”: They look for a diversity of ideas, rather than, you know, diversity diversity, when choosing which people will represent different points of view. You’ve probably heard this one before, albeit in a different context: Of course we’d love to hire [women/black people/low-income people from non-Ivy schools] but we have to go with the most qualified people!

My colleagues tried very, very hard to get experts of color and gender diversity on this panel. I, too, wish we had been successful,” Best wrote. “We will keep pushing for diverse transportation sources. But diverse viewpoints are just as important. And we will continue to seek those out, as well.” And Tan wrote: “This conversation was not just about diversity of panel’s makeup, but also about diversity of ideas.”

Obviously, I’m not arguing that only monochrome ideas should be represented. But a monochrome panel has implications that are more significant than just appearances. In addition to the feedback loop described above (I love Mark Hallenbeck, but I’ve seen him quoted about eleventy million times since I started covering transportation in Seattle back in 2001), there’s the fact that diverse experiences often lead directly to those “diverse viewpoints” Best and Tan and all the people who plan these all-white events say they’re looking for.

Let me give you just one example. Imagine if last week’s “Gridlocked” panel had included an expert who also happened to be a woman of color, with children, who frequently uses transit (or used it in the past). That person would almost by definition understand more about the safety needs of female transit riders, particularly at night; the realities of trying to run multiple errands on a bus system that isn’t built for easy transfers; what it means to be not just annoyed by heavy traffic, but to lose pay because of it; and the challenges of traffic for those who use the roads for caregiving and family work like driving kids to school and soccer practice, as opposed to those who merely drive in to downtown in the morning and back out again at night.

I completely agree with Tan and Best that finding people who combine diversity of ideas with actual diversity is harder than just calling the usual white, male pundits who have been making the rounds for decades. It’s easiest to do what’s familiar. It’s hard to find and amplify new voices. But the thing is, sometimes hard things are worth doing even if they’re hard. And the more that incumbent power brokers like the Seattle Times take the trouble to find and amplify the voices of women, people of color, low-income people, and other groups we don’t ordinarily see onstage discussing major issues, the more a new feedback loop will start to materialize, in which those voices amplify each other and it becomes a little easier, and a little easier, to identify them and invite them to the table.

Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to panels and theoretical discussions. It also applies in other male-dominated spaces—from which bloggers’ posts get shared widely to who gets to run for office to the makeup of a city council member’s staff. We’ve got to start thinking of diversity as a goal in itself, rather than assuming that homogeneity is just the order of the universe.

This is why it’s called affirmative action—it has to be affirmative (a conscious decision to elevate someone who doesn’t fit your default idea of “pundit”) and it has to be action. Maybe you don’t get Scott Kubly—maybe you go for someone one or two rungs lower, who can represent SDOT’s views just as accurately and compellingly as Kubly but who doesn’t have the shiny title and the reputation for reliability that comes with a decade of pontificating in front of audiences. Maybe instead of an expensive, high-profile transportation futurist, you find someone who’s writing on the same issues, and at the same level, as White Guy No. 17 on your pundit list but who hasn’t won the awards and accolades and book deal yet. Maybe you ask around to see if there is anyone other than Mark Hallenbeck at the UW who also studies transportation policy. And then, maybe, you get a more diverse panel and more diverse ideas.

3 thoughts on ““Diversity of Ideas” Is Not Enough”

  1. Pingback: The C Is for crank
  2. 1. I love Thanh.

    2. I will make a list of women the ST could have invited. For fun, I will do this without even looking at my Contacts or Facebook feeds: Carla Saulter, Erica Barnett, Hillary Franz, Elizabeth Kiker, Jennifer Langston, Jemae Hoffman, Cathy Tuttle, Lisa Quinn, Sara Maxana, Renee Staton, Kamala Rao, Cheeying Ho, Alyse Nelson. I have a call now, or I could continue for about half an hour.

  3. This is such an important point that I feel compelled to say thanks for stating this so clearly.

    All too recently I took it upon myself to _affirmatively_ curate more diversity into my firehose of news, blog, commentary, and twitter feeds. The value of expanding the frame through which I examine issues cannot be understated. While my views aren’t necessarily altered by the addition of diversity, my understanding of how my views are shaped, and how my views shape my positions, certainly is.

    Much credit to you, Erica, for whisking me along with you to a more vibrant embrace of our city. Cheers!

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