The Numbers Game: Making Sense of Diversity Quotas

womaneer-gender-quotasWhen I urge Christian churches and organizations to diversify, people often immediately jump to the controversial topic of diversity quotas. Are culturally-based quotas an effective and honoring way to achieve diversity? Well, it depends. (This is my answer to most questions. At least I'm consistent! :)) Off the bat, I tend not to use the word quota because it carries with it a history of baggage (e.g., perceptions of bean counting, “discrimination” against privileged groups, exclusionary goals) that can take on a life of its own and break down otherwise productive conversations on diversity and integration. Rather, I like to use cultural parity goals, a term that I adapted from psychologist Donald Atkinson's work on ethnic parity goals.[i] Cultural parity is achieved when the cultural representation in a particular group/organization is equivalent to that found in the general population. In other words, in a town like Santa Barbara which is about 75% white and 25% non-white Hispanic, a church that has cultural (in this case, racial) parity would be approximately 75% white and 25% Hispanic with a leadership team that reflects that diversity as well.

Cultural parity enables us to better inhabit the metaphor of the diverse, interdependent body of Christ, but achieving and maintaining cultural parity can be complicated. Are we representing the general population well? Are we attracting and retaining diverse group members and leadership? Are our goals for cultural diversity being met? Well, one potentially helpful way to answer these questions is by...wait for it... counting how many diverse people are in fact in the pews, on the committee, in the small group, matriculating at the college, on the pastoral staff, etc., and setting numeric benchmarks that can help us measure our efforts.

Indeed numbers matter. Research on diversity shows that homogenous groups tend to make biased decisions that favor similar others. However, when a group is composed of at least 30% non-majority group members, the group’s decisions (which are now informed by more diverse people) are significantly less biased.[ii] For this reason, using quotas as a benchmark for ethnic parity goals can be an effective way to fight cultural bias within our church, university, ministry, small group, etc.


1. To motivate a group to do the work of diversity and unity. I’m amazed at how many people think that they can achieve significant diversity goals without expending any effort. The “if we build it, they will come” strategy for diversity is whimsical and dreamy (hey, I love the movie Field of Dreams as much as the next person) but ineffective and likely based on privileged reasoning. When it comes to groups, the old proverb is true: birds of a feather flock together. Cross-cultural integration goes against just about every natural group instinct; if a group wants to be diverse, it will have to seek out and work for diversity. Quotas push us to look beyond the homogenous people who naturally gravitate towards us.

(Word to the wise: Diverse people are plentiful. Just because we don't know them does not mean they don't exist. If we don't know of any qualified diverse people to lead our group, speak at our conference, attend our church, matriculate at our college, etc., then it's probably time for us to diversify our friend group and/or re-think our definition of the word "qualified." )

2. To create a critical mass of diverse people within the group. The only thing worse than being a token minority is being the only token minority. And let me tell you, that is a lonely place to be! Quotas can push us to increase the number of diverse people so that a) the diverse people who join the group don’t have to do it Lone Ranger-style and b) to ensure that the diverse people have influence and voice in the group (and thus avoid being tokenized). In order to do this, the group of diverse people needs to compose 30% or more of the larger group.

3. To provide institutional support for diversity. My inner psychology nerd just loves Acts 6 because it shows organizational processes at the Bible! In this passage, it's clear that the early church leaders had a stated goal of caring for the widows in their community. But that goal wasn’t being met because the necessary human and financial resources weren't being allocated towards it. Even though everyone agreed that the widows were important, there were no institutional structures in place to support the widows. When the early church leaders were alerted to the discrepancy between the stated goal and the outcome, they decided to make an organizational change: they appointed 7 new leaders to run the widow ministry. They changed the organizational structure so that it consistently supported the goal of feeding the widows.

The same needs to happen for diversity. If diversity is simply a stated goal within an organizational structure that remains unchanged, it will never come to fruition.[iii] The organizational structure must be modified to support the diversity goals – and quotas are one way to do this because they change the people within the organization.

4. To shape organizational language and policy. If we're thinking of diverse people when we hire/recruit/invite/interact/lead, we must think about the language and policies we use. We must examine long-held but never scrutinized policies (such as how we identify potential leaders) for biases. We must inspect the language we use for words and phrases that might exclude diverse people. Everything changes when our target audience changes.


1. When the dominant cultural identity remains an idol. Research suggests that diversity initiatives are most likely to fail amongst Christian groups that idolize their cultural identities. Due to this idolatry, diverse group members are not invited as valuable members of the all-inclusive we. Rather they are invited to participate in the organization as them – subordinate ‘Others’ and second class citizens who are often silenced, disempowered and required to assimilate. Until we relativize our cultural identities and adopt an inclusive group identity, we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated.

2. When diverse people are only invited to participate in entry-level/menial/limited roles. White pastor Mark Deymaz shares wisdom from a black pastor:

“If you hire or otherwise empower African Americans only to lead your church in worship, you may inadvertently suggest to people, 'We accept them as entertainers.' If you hire or otherwise empower African Americans only to work with your children, you may inadvertently suggest, 'We accept them to nanny our kids.' And if you hire or otherwise employ African Americans only as janitors, you are quite clearly stating, 'We expect them to clean up after us.' It is only when you allow us to share your pulpit, to serve with you on the elder board or alongside you in apportioning the money, that we will be truly one with you in church."

I'll add that it’s also important to hire diverse people at all levels because people hired a higher levels can exert more influence on the organization. For example, it makes little sense for a Christian college, in pursuit of ethnic parity goals, to hire 10 people of color but only at the assistant professor (the lowest) level. Realistically, these non-tenured professors have very little job security, no seniority among the faculty and very little voice. The Christian college should hire both diverse junior faculty and diverse senior faculty/deans.

3. When equality is mistaken for equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is ensuring that everyone enjoys the same positive outcomes. These are two very different things.equality-vs-equity

Organizations that rely on quotas might be tempted to wrongly think that since everyone has a seat at the table (equality), then everyone will have the same positive, empowered experience (equity). So once the diverse people are recruited, the organization does not seek feedback from them, adapt to meet their needs, or do what it takes to ensure that their experience is positive. Rather, diverse people are left to navigate the mostly homogenous, oppressive organization on their own and usually end up leaving once when they discover that the organization lacks equity. Not only is this dishonoring to diverse people, but it is ineffective.

(Word to the wise: Groups that have a track record of attracting diverse people but then failing to retain them probably have an equity problem.)

4. When the group puts the bulk of the responsibility for organizational change on the diverse people. The good ol' "we hired you so you could change us" approach. This is one of the quickest ways to abuse and repel diverse people. Just don't do it :)


[i] Atkinson, Brown & Casas, 1996, 2000.

[iii] Decades of research on contact theory (Allport, 1954) suggests that institutional support is a necessary component for positive changes toward diversity. See Binder et al. (2009) for a review.