On the Merits of Creating Diversity

31 Aug On the Merits of Creating Diversity

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 5.9.22


For two Sundays in August, I got to hang out backstage at a comedy show starring nothing but women. This is special enough to make me weepy with joy. (Very girly of me, obviously, and I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.) And how wild that after doing this job for almost 30 years this is still rare.

Back when I started in comedy I barely got to work with other women. Received wisdom was each show was allowed a maximum of one lady, often less. This was based on the theory (I’m guessing here) that women are the carbohydrates of comedy and you can’t have potatoes and pasta at one sitting.

It remained this way for decades in live shows and on TV panels – maximum one woman at a time, please, to any number of men. So while boys bonded backstage and in touring vans, built their networks and shared opportunities with each other, women didn’t see each other at work at all. We didn’t watch each other perform, swap stories about our experiences or get to speak up for each other. We were simply never in the same room at the same time.

It also meant audiences couldn’t see how different we were from each other – no compare-and-contrast on any given night demonstrating we were not a homogenous group telling, according to legend, the same period joke.

It also meant we didn’t get to warn each other about particular dangers we were facing alone, a conversation we didn’t even know was missing until #metoo encouraged us to share our stories.

All of this is why I am a fan of quotas – of mandating diversity, if you will. Because my job, like most jobs, is one you get good at only by doing it. Every opportunity makes you ready for the next one, but you need that first one to get started.

The counter argument – and we hear it a lot in politics right now – is that selection should be based solely on merit, with no regard to quotas for diversity. The “merit” argument is hard to sustain given how many people chosen that way turned out to have little of it. Certainly as an approach the “selection on merit” system comes with no guarantee of success.

Besides which, “the best person for the job” might be less about someone’s individual skills, but the differences they bring like cultural knowledge, ethnic and gender perspectives, or disability experiences. Someone who is not like you will see things that are invisible to you. “Who are we not hearing from?” is always a good question for any group to ask itself.

In the past, I’ve had conversations with women who insist they don’t want to feel they’ve been given a seat at the table only because they’re a woman and a lady-shaped chair needed to be filled. They want to earn their spot, and I get that. But so often the reason they weren’t already at the table is because they’re a woman, and we’re fixing that now. Take the win, I say, and do something great with it.

My industry is not so different from anyone else’s. We can all see that, each time you create a space for someone to step up, they are likely to grab it with both hands and earn the right to be there. Because a quota will get you through the door, but you get to stay in the room based on your own merit.

And here’s a simple rule to live by: Don’t let anyone be “the only one”.