Sometimes I really have to disabuse myself of this notion that I'm a "reasonably intelligent person." I say this because I usually have something cogent and illuminating to add to any philosophical/political discussion . . . about an hour after it's finished.
Yesterday during our monthly "research ethics" course, we were talking about hiring practices. It was commonly accepted around the table that a physics department was more than justified in passing over the most qualified applicants for a position in order to hire a woman. After all, she brings benefits that you don't find on the resume, and it helps to have women there to help other women keep from getting lost in the milieu.
First things first, I don't find that diversity, in and of itself, has any inherent value. At least, not from a scientific perspective. If they're trying to hire someone, they should hire the person who brings the most to the department, and this should be regardless of what the applicants have dangling (or not) between their legs.
Ah, but the counter-argument is that "diverse " people bring other benefits to the table. Benefits you can't put on a resume. Benefits that only they can provide, with their gender/skin color. Benefits that students of the same gender/skin color require to succeed in this field.
I've never heard these benefits explained or defined. I think it's important to answer this question: To what extent to these "benefits of diversity" match or exceed the gap between the standard credentials on a resume? Normal resume differences can be quantified in a situation such as this: Length of experience, number of publications, number of high profile publications, research grant money, etc. How does a department quantify that? How many research grants are two X chromosomes worth? How many Nature or Science papers is being black worth?
Finally, it's always gets back, for me, to the "What would happen if this went the other direction?" argument. By hiring a "diverse" candidate simply for their "diversity," that physics department is saying, "We only hired you because you're a woman, and we need more women around here." The corollary to this is that they're telling the most qualified applicant, "We're not hiring you because you're a man. Sorry, we don't need any more men around here."
Now imagine how this might work in the opposite direction. "Sorry, we've decided to hire someone else. Yes, you're the most qualified, but you're black, and we don't need any more black people around here." Good lord, can you imagine the lawsuits? I find it worth pointing out that people have sued for similar situations (that is, white male applicants passed over for "diverse" candidates) and won.
If you disagree, do try to articulate your opposition in a meaningful sense; the problem I have with these arguments is that I've never heard them explained in a cogent sense. Now if only I could do the same in a timely manner. I really hate that, by sitting at the discussion and not objecting, people think that I'm okay with such discrimination.