If you’ve not been confronted with this potent phrase, one among many toxic phrases that dominate ‘diversity’ conversations, then you’re lucky. Challenging the ideas bound up in the ‘lowering the bar’ accusation is central in the battle over who belongs.
“I’m all for the diversity and inclusion agenda,” they say while nodding affirmatively, “but I just don’t want us lowering the bar!”
And, with those words, my smile turns to a grimace. Oh no. This conversation won’t be as speedy as I thought. We have a lot to unpack here.
Why do people say this? If we were to give people the world’s most generous interpretation ever for using this phrase, we might say that they are letting us know:
We are an organization with high-performance expectations and we pride ourselves on hiring the brightest people to solve the toughest problems. This is important to us.
With this reading, most people find it very hard to argue with — even those who feel passionately angry at its deployment. No one wants to be interpreted as in favor of ‘lower standards’ and all organisations want to hire the best people. The phrase is cunning therefore because it frames anyone endorsing ‘lowering the bar’ as someone who doesn’t believe in striving for excellence. And who would want to be that?! This is central to the phrase’s potency and currency. It is also why it’s such a sticky phrase that hangs around like a bad smell for those of us committed to producing equitable cultures.
In light of this, I thought I’d unpack what’s going on in this phrase to assist anyone engaging those who like to throw out the ‘lowering the bar narrative’ and hopefully offer you a framework for thinking about it that makes space for a powerful conversation.
What’s going on in this phrase?
The first thing happening that we need to expose is that when people use this phrase there is an explicit assumption that there is an irreconcilable clash between talent and the proposal of hiring minoritised and marginalised people. This is evidenced by the fact that this fear of sub-par people entering the fold is only entertained in conversations related to changing recruitment practices to be more inclusive. The absence of concern for lowering the bar ordinarily – in terms of a company’s day-to-day practices and processes – directly exposes that they think that when companies are hiring white people, or men, or non-disabled people these groups are inherently deserving of their places (ie no one bats an eyelid, it’s the natural order of things). The assumption is that by their sheer brilliance alone, these groups who dominate our workplaces can clear the ‘incredibly high’ hurdle of performance expectations in their roles or recruitment. And – and this will be hard for some people to stomach – the logic therefore follows, that if it is through these groups’ sheer brilliance alone, then we are saying that their talent is inherent to their identity as white people, men, non-disabled people, etc.
Conversely, when people speak of lowering the bar, what they are saying is that they are locating a talent deficiency within certain groups and that the fear of their diminished talent is located in their identity as a minoritized/marginalized person (a person of color, disabled, woman, trans/non-binary, etc). To put it another way: if certain people had the talent they would have historically and naturally been clearing the high hurdle set.
Second, this phrase sets up whatever the default practice for hiring and promoting people is as by definition fair and just. The logic presented is that the processes and practices for recruitment and promotion are fair and just and it follows that those who make it through are fairly and justly recipients of the roles they are in.
How might we counter the phrase’s logic?
To counter the underlying logic of the phrase requires us to reveal important details about how the world is organized that are otherwise obscured from the conversation.
We must first establish strongly that minoritized folks and the presence of talent are most definitely not an irreconcilable clash. We must be resolute on this! Instead, we must visualize the historically rooted mechanisms that have systematically prevented the full participation of certain communities from employment, among other spheres. This means being explicit about the laws, policies, and regulations (what we call ‘structures’) designed to curb certain people’s legitimacy, freedom, dignity, and safety. It means exposing policies of segregation, criminalization, dehumanization, institutionalization, incarceration, surveillance, disenfranchisement, and ethnic cleansing that have been enabled by devastating ideas about certain groups, and that have then produced the very conditions needed for those ideas to remain and stick around.
To give an example, ideas abound about working-class people and those experiencing poverty as being irresponsible and bad with money. This idea has then been instrumentalized in a whole host of ways to reinforce the position of these folks. Whether access to capital is more expensive if you’re poor, or whether you’ve made houseless even while working multiple jobs because wages are so low (yet the image of working-class people as lazy persists), or the disproportionate cost of gas for heating in pay as you go meters overwhelmingly used by those who can’t pay on credit, or limitations on employment after a jail sentence (and a system where certain crimes are more likely to see people jailed vs others), or in the US the high bail thresholds for petty crime… and the list continues.
All these laws and policies negatively target those already without access to the resources they need and further negatively impact their material conditions – which in a perverse feedback loop reinforces the ideas society constructs about people within these groups. In summary, it’s expensive to be poor and the consequence is a cycle in which poor folks are falsely deemed irresponsible with money or shirkers for not having generated enough revenue to survive. If we didn’t visualize these structures, we might be left to wrongly conclude that people experiencing poverty are doing so because the problem lies within them personally. We might wrongly conclude that working-class people aren’t in our workplaces because they don’t have the talent, rather than their class position in a world designed against them making it disproportionately harder for them to even get to your company.
We must also re-interpret the normative ways we consume what’s going on. The structures (laws, regulations, and policies) above outline what we must certainly label affirmative action policies for white, middle-class, heterosexual, non-disabled, cis, men people. It’s the only way to explain their dominance in certain spheres and roles unless you want to locate a talent deficiency in certain groups (which we have established doesn’t exist).
The affirmative action policies for white people in America, for example, started in the 17th century. The English implemented a series of laws – laws that responded to the evolving context to establish and then cement a racial hierarchy to enable their profiteering and control. Turning African people into legal property, was one mechanism. Expropriating land and ethnically cleansing indigenous people was another. Demarcating citizenship as only for ‘free White people’ in the 1790 Naturalisation Act. Excluding Chinese people from entering America in 1882 (who also didn’t get the right to citizenship until 1943). Forcible removal of Native children to then be placed in Indian boarding schools. Then we have redlining, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and police brutality. A similar list could be written in the UK, that would include segregation on Bristol buses; bussing young kids of color so they could be ‘integrated’ in some UK schools; the guilty until proven innocent premise, particularly for black men, that’s the outcome of Section 60 stop and search policies; Empire! All mechanisms, that in subjugating black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), by definition, served white people (whether they liked it or not, and irrespective of whether they were the exact white people to devise the policies).
These mechanisms enabled people, on account of their whiteness, to accumulate resources, gain access to certain spheres, dictate decision-making, and fully participate in society at the expense of others. If we didn’t reveal these historical structures that inform and shape our present, we might wrongly conclude that people, because of their whiteness, just had an innate gift for getting on in life. We might wrongly conclude that our default recruitment and promotion practices are meritocratic. This would, with a new lens on the facts, quite clearly be delusional. If these laws and policies aren’t affirmative action for white people, what is?
When we review the historical record given these affirmative action policies for white people, as well as for other groups, such as men, non-disabled, non-muslim, non-Jewish, non-indigenous, middle class, heterosexual, cis folks, I propose that it might actually be fair to remove them. I know that those who belong to these groups will be joining me in the call to once and for all abolish the high quotas that guarantee their roles.
However, given that removing the benefit of the affirmative action policies is extremely difficult an alternative response would be to raise the bar for entry for these affirmed groups, as we can only conclude that the bar has been set too low and they have had highly effective ladders handed to them to clear ‘the bar’. In this (re)conception of the phrase, the bar isn’t actually a standard of excellence, which is what we have previously been told. Instead, it is actually a reflection of how high the hurdle has been set for some groups to prevent their inclusion and the relative ease with which others have been let in.
So finally, if we can’t raise the bar to re-calibrate the presence of those who are dominating because of invisibilized affirmative action policies, then why shouldn’t we lower the bar for those who are confronting and living through extensive historical barriers, obstacles, and the highest systematic hurdles conceivably possible by reducing and eliminating what’s unfair. That’s all that changes in outreach, diverse slate panels, job description wording, interview approaches, accessibility adjustments, and so on are doing.
Let’s refute the premise of the ‘lowering the bar’ argument. Let’s insist that there is no clash between talent and marginalized groups. And let’s shine a light on the ladders, legs up, and non-existent bars afforded to those who dominate!