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Why does diversity among elected officials matter? An expert explains.

So why does diversity matter? For Sanjay Jeram, a senior lecturer in political science at Simon Fraser University, the arguments in favour of more diversity among elected officials can be divided into two distinct pieces: policy and philosophy.
Diversity at work. Shutterstock

So why does diversity matter? For Sanjay Jeram, a senior lecturer in political science at Simon Fraser University, the arguments in favour of more diversity among elected officials can be divided into two distinct pieces: policy and philosophy.

For the first, he said, there’s a camp that argues in favour of diversity because it’s important to policy outcome.

“If, for example, you have more females…do we find a tangible change in the actual policy base about, for example, things around social welfare, paternity leave, maternity leave?”

The same goes for ethnicity: will having more people of colour change the actual agenda?

Thus far, Jeram said, research shows the answer is “kind of mixed.”

“It doesn’t have a conclusive, straight up-and-down finding,” he said. “It’s not as if it’s a home run that if you have more diversity, you have a more diverse range of issues that make the agenda.”

But, Jeram noted, it’s logical to suggest that having leaders who represent a small segment of the population – largely white, middle-class males – means those leaders have a narrower field of view about what issues are important.

“We think about policy mostly through our lived experience. To me, that’s a logical reason to believe diversity matters,” he said.

For instance, Jeram said, on issues such as affirmative action, a white male might not see why a change in policy may be necessary. White males also tend to be better off economically, he noted, which leads to its own set of issues: “How can we possibly expect them to consider issues of affordable housing?”

It’s logical, he said, that members of visible minority communities will have other viewpoints to bring to politics.

“If you have that lived experience, you’re more likely to bring that experience to the table,” he said.

The other argument in favour of diversity is a more philosophical one, and that’s the argument that suggests that seeing diverse faces in elected office is empowering for members of visible minority communities.

“Seeing representation in one’s representative; does it mean something for one’s competence and belief in the democratic system?” Jeram said.

That belief, he said, is something not necessarily based in substantive research. But the idea that people feel empowered and are therefore more likely to become involved is a compelling one for many voters.

Jeram pointed out increasing diversity – whether that’s gender or ethnic diversity – is only part of the question. The other is what and who, exactly, those “diverse” representatives are there to speak for.

“Are women supposed to represent women? Are minorities supposed to represent minorities?” Jeram said. “Can we ascribe a separate, specific role to these people?”

Moreover, he pointed out, it’s difficult to expect a representative to speak on behalf of a community.

“Sometimes viewpoints within a community are very diverse. It becomes problematic when you attach a proscriptive label,” he said. “The assumptions are grand when you start assuming people are going to act a certain way.”

Jeram said there’s a dearth of research about local-level diversity but added it’s clearly an issue in diverse municipalities around Greater Vancouver, where visible minorities are underrepresented relative to population.

“For the most part that just goes unseen,” he said, admitting it was surprised to hear it has been a talked-about issue in the New Westminster campaign – noting he hasn’t seen it become so in Vancouver.

“It’s not something that I would have expected a phone call on,” he said. “I have not heard anything around the diversity of the candidates. In fact, it’s completely absent from the debate.”

Jeram speculated that the growing numbers of candidates from visible minorities, and the growing discussion around diversity, are in part due to the simple fact that many children of immigrant parents are now hitting their 30s and 40s.

“I also think that this second generation of visible minority groups is probably coming of age. Growing up in two worlds, being educated in Canada, knowing specifically about the political system but having a connection to their ancestral communities … We’re just seeing that now.”

Jeram noted there are other aspects of diversity that need to be brought into the discussion, too.

“I honestly think diversity should also mean class. It’s something we don’t often talk about in politics, how do we bring people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to politics and have them win?”

Diversity of gender identity, too, is playing an increasing role as society is evolving from the idea of binary gender.

“That, to me, is something that’s really on the horizon,” he said.