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Bean-Counting in an Inferno

eye on the news

Bean-Counting in an Inferno

New York’s mostly male FDNY begins a “diversity” initiative. October 7, 2015
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Having finished reeducating his city’s supposedly racist police force, New York mayor Bill de Blasio has now turned his social-justice laser beam onto its mostly male, mostly white fire department. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FDNY has begun a two-year program of “diversity training” for its nearly 11,000 uniformed members. The goal? To foster an environment more inclusive to women and minorities that, in the mayor’s words, “truly reflects the city it serves.” As usual, however, the mayor’s nice-sounding intentions are completely wrongheaded—and could end up endangering city residents.

When de Blasio looks at the FDNY, he sees an organization ripe for reform. He just knows that a city agency that is 91 percent male—in a city 52 percent female—must explicitly or implicitly discriminate against women (though the number of female FDNY firefighters is at an all-time high). He just knows that an organization that is 76 percent white—in a city 33 percent white—must be excluding minorities. That’s why he had the city shell out nearly $100 million in 2014 to settle a long-running legal claim by failed African-American and Hispanic FDNY applicants who alleged that the department’s written exam was designed to trip them up.

The Bloomberg administration had fought the charge for 12 years; de Blasio settled it three months into his mayoral tenure. “This administration is fully committed to promoting diversity and equal access in every sector across our five boroughs, and this settlement will move New York City one step closer to this goal,” he said. Yet, for some reason, the mayor’s efforts to equalize racial representation in city agencies have so far been limited to the FDNY. He seems untroubled by the Department of Corrections’ racial makeup: 61 percent African-American, 18 percent Latino. The Department of Education is 77 percent female. Where is the diversity training program for these agencies?

“Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice,” says leadership guru Peter Bregman. “It promotes it.” In a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Bregman notes that efforts like the FDNY training program—aimed at fine-tuning employees’ sensitivities to race and gender issues—fail because real-life biases are almost always abstract. “People aren’t prejudiced against real people; they’re prejudiced against categories. ‘Sure, John is gay,’ they’ll say, ‘but he’s not like other gays.’ Their problem isn’t with John, but with gay people in general. Categories are dehumanizing. They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice.”

In 2007, researchers from Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota looked at the employment practices of 829 firms over 31 years and found that diversity training is a waste of time and money. In fact, such training actually had a negative effect on the number of African-American women who made it into management jobs. “If what you are trying to do is increase the diversity of the workforce, training isn’t going to do it,” said the study’s lead author, Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin. “You can’t really change people’s biases with training.”

If diversity training is a dead end, why is Mayor de Blasio insisting upon it? Because, like most progressives, his idea of social justice involves the “fundamental transformation” of society—and that project must necessarily begin in the city agencies that are within his sphere of control. There are limits to what a mayor can do, even one with a lapdog city council cheering him on. This mayor thinks tilting policy in favor of certain personnel is the fastest route to fundamental transformation.

How else to explain the decision earlier this year to allow 33-year-old Rebecca Wax to graduate from the Fire Academy despite having failed the Functional Skills Test five times? The FST was designed to mimic the conditions of an actual fire. Probationary firefighters are required to complete a grueling six-floor obstacle course while hauling 50 pounds of gear and breathing through an oxygen tank. Wax succeeded in completing the course on her sixth try but took nearly four minutes longer to do so than is typically permitted. Nevertheless, she was allowed to graduate and was assigned to Engine 259 in Sunnyside, Queens. FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro admitted at a city council hearing in December that the department had lowered the fitness bar to allow more women to pass the test.

Lost in all of this is acknowledgment of a highly likely if unwelcome reality: that a job requiring willingness and ability to charge into burning buildings may not be equally appealing to men and women. Little boys have dreamt of riding on the backs of firetrucks and sliding down firehouse poles since the invention of the helmet and hose. Constructing a society in which both sexes flock to the fire department in roughly equal numbers would require changing the wiring inside the heads of boys and girls. But let’s not give de Blasio any ideas.

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