Think team diversity is just about equality? You're wrong ❤.

Aaron Asaro
15 Jan 2021

6 minute read

Team diversity[1] is about more than fixing inequality[2]. Until a year or two ago I naively thought it was. While equality is a fine motivation there's more value to diversity when you dig a bit deeper.

Dig deeper and you'll see research shows diverse teams offer a competitive advantage [3]. The tricky thing is that the research is too easy to brush off with casual questions like:

  • Was the mix of experience and intellect evenly distributed?
  • Was the study design off [4]?
  • Were the sample sizes too small?

What I need is something closer to a ground truth. Queue Veritasium and the Ames window illusion.

A few days ago YouTube recommended a Veritasium video about the Ames window illusion. If you haven't watched it, it's brilliant. It's also a beautiful example of how diverse teams can see more. How? Well, let's dive in.

Below you will see the Ames window illusion. If you see it the same way I do, it looks like it's leading edge is moving from left-to-right-to-left. The pencil looks like it moves through the frame, rather than along with it. If that's what you see, your brain is playing a trick on you. That frame is in fact turning a complete circle in the clockwise direction. No, this isn't CGI, or some magic trick - it's a "bug" in the brain.

Where you grew up will decide whether you fall for the Ames window illusion.

The fact that our brains have bugs should be no surprise. What is a surprise is that the bugs vary depending on a person's background.

In 1957 a study[5] found that children that lived in a modern South African city almost all fell for the illusion. But, children that lived nearby in a traditional Zulu village did not fall for the illusion (mostly). What causes the difference isn't important for team formation[6], what is important is that there is a difference at all.

The difference is key to understanding the immediate impact that increased diversity can offer. A diverse team[7] can see more and interpret the world better. Any team with these advantages is bound to outperform the competition.


Footnotes

  1. When I speak of team diversity I mean teams that are made up of people with different races, cultures and genders ↩︎

  2. I use equality here as it's more broadly understood, but really we should be working towards equity. The difference being nicely captured in this image: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-difference-between-the-terms-equality-equality-and-liberation-illustrated-C_fig1_340777978 ↩︎

  3. HBR produced an article that summarised some studies which showed how diverse teams outperform monoculture teams at some tasks. https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter ↩︎

  4. "The replication crisis is an ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis ↩︎

  5. Allport, G. W., & Pettigrew, T. F. (1957). Cultural influence on the perception of movement: The trapezoidal illusion among Zulus. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55(1), 104–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0049372 ↩︎

  6. The authors of the study concluded that the cause of the different interpretations of what was seen was due to either nature, nurture or some combination of both. ↩︎

  7. I love forming remote teams, because that diversity is that much easier to achieve! ↩︎