Interesting times

Well that was… interesting. I published a piece on the Guardian “Comment is Free” website yesterday and the readership on this blog and on tiintax, my tax blog, had a sudden spike. And the comments on the piece are up to 500+ at the time of writing.

And you know when they say “don’t read the comments”…???

However. One of the things I did in my past was to edit Quarterly Record, the journal of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes and Senior Revenue Officials, in the days before HMRC. I recalled writing something there about the difference between equality and diversity. I didn’t have space to go into it in the Guardian piece, but I have just found a copy of the July 2002 QR in my cupboard and so I thought I would reproduce below the relevant extract from my editorial. I think it still works. Although goodness me, didn’t I need a decent copy editor! No, the em-dash should NOT be the most frequently used punctuation mark.

…Which brings me on to my theme – hey, you knew I’d get to one eventually – which is Diversity. Now diversity is one of those words which, like culture, seems to make some people reach instantly for their guns, so let’s begin by defining what we mean. Diversity needs to be distinguished from equality. To me equality is what you get when you apply the same rules to everyone – what we might call the “GI Jane” method. You decide that anyone can be – say – a police officer – provided he or she is at least six feet tall, can carry a hundred and fifty pounds for a hundred yards and complete an assault course in ten minutes. And if that produces a self selected group with very few women in it, well, that’s just the way things are – anyone who wants to join can try, and any woman who has the right stuff can make the grade, just like any man. The method is fair, the outcome is nothing to do with inequality. Diversity, in contrast, means you look at the demographic of the population as a whole, and the demographic of – say – your police force, and compare them – and then look hard at why you are setting the qualifications you are setting. Does an officer regularly have to carry a hundred and fifty pounds of weight over a hundred yards? Every officer? What would it mean to have a force which more closely mirrored the demographic of the population as a whole? Are there police tasks which a four foot six woman could do as well – better? – than a six foot man? It’s about looking at what each person brings to the table and valuing it. So the soccer hooligan might quieten down faster when challenged by the dazzling blonde – and the six foot rugby playing stereotype might turn out to have skills for more diverse than thumping people in any event.

Personally I routinely look around any group and do what Sara Paretsky calls an “affirmative action headcount”. In other words, when I find myself in a gathering of twenty four people I automatically start to wonder why only four of them are women and none of them is from an ethnic minority. And, yes, I’m talking about the AIT Executive Committee to which I am newly elected and which I met on an awayday the week before sending this issue to the printers.

So why are there so many of the same old faces on Committee? Well obviously to a large degree it’s because the previous committee were good guys and did a good job and people were happy to re-elect them. D’oh, as Homer might say. But I am nevertheless concerned that the committee is so white and so male, and I wonder whether the answer might not lie in the tendency to think that “the way we do things here” is “the way things ought to be done”…