Does diversity really yield better results? Consider football

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Has the case for diversity been defeated in extra-time? At the start of the season, “wosoc Twitter” — the corner of social media that follows and discusses women’s football — was in uproar about the Arsenal Women’s squad photo: a picture without a single visible minority face in it. Now they are Conti Cup winners thanks to a late, late goal by Stina Blackstenius.

Much of the chatter focused on what you might call the aspirational aspects of the game: how can girls from ethnic minority backgrounds aspire to a career in the sport if there is no one who looks like them in the playing squad? But in private, the concerns shared by fans were different: namely, that Arsenal Women have, since 2019, struggled to match Chelsea, a team that has a more diverse set of players and outperforms them on the pitch. Arsenal’s current collection of North Americans, Scandis and white Britons, some said, reflects a poorly assembled squad that lacks the consistency to win the major prizes.

These are usually the two most commonly advanced arguments for diversity, whether on stage, in the boardroom or in politics. The representation argument is, I think, misplaced. As a child, my first career ambition was to be a train, because I loved watching Thomas the Tank Engine. That the steam engines in question were all white (or more specifically, grey) and fictional was not a barrier.

We should encourage everyone at the start of their careers to see themselves in successful figures regardless of whether they look like them or not. There is a good argument for the importance of diverse representation, and sport has provided strong examples of this in the past and the present. But its major benefit is actually the reverse. The social value of footballers such as John Barnes or Michael Thomas wasn’t that Black football fans looked at them and thought that they, too, might play pivotal roles in winning at Anfield, but that the white British majority looked at their sporting prowess and came to respect and appreciate minority Britons more.

What about the second argument — that diversity leads to success? Unfortunately for fans of Arsenal Women, this argument still holds up well on the pitch. Despite the Conti Cup victory again this year, they are miles off the pace in the league, and will almost certainly finish behind not just Chelsea, but Manchester City, who also have a more diverse squad.

The argument seems to hold true off the pitch as well. For coming up to a decade now, a series of reports by McKinsey have found that diverse leadership teams get better returns than those that don’t. In politics, the Conservatives’ record of electoral success has coincided with the party racking up a series of diversity firsts — the first, second and third female prime ministers, the first British Asian prime minister, the first British Jewish prime minister, and many more besides at ministerial level.

But not all the evidence in this case for diversity is straightforward. A recent study — albeit one using a slightly different set of companies than that surveyed by McKinsey — has called McKinsey’s findings into doubt. The study found no significant relationship between diversity and improved financial results, and furthermore, argued that McKinsey’s data could not be reasonably used to draw this conclusion.

The whole conversation can be a bit chicken and egg. Are the Conservative party better at hitting diversity “firsts” because diversity makes them more successful, or are they better placed to hit those firsts because they are more successful? It’s true that they have had many more prime ministers of diverse background than the Labour party: but, equally, there have been more Tory prime ministers (seven) in my lifetime as there have been Labour prime ministers in the entire history of their party.

I think it’s more accurate to say that diversity matters not because it always leads to success, but because it is a good indicator that you are working in a way that will ultimately lead to success. It is unarguable that talent and potential comes in different shapes and sizes. Therefore if I hire people of different ages, genders, ethnicities or faiths, then I am probably more likely to be hiring well than if everyone I hire hails from the same university, faith or background as me.

Arsenal Women’s un-diverse squad wasn’t destined to come unstuck against teams that defend in numbers and to drop silly points it shouldn’t have done, but that squad picture was a warning sign. Though diversity is, in my view, more often a byproduct rather than a cause of success, we should see its absence as a signal that we aren’t getting our talent recruitment quite right: even if we do occasionally manage to win a cup or two.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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