Tuesday 9 April 2013

Diversity, cities and business performance: some new evidence from the UK

Posted by Dr Max Nathan, SERC, LSE and NIESR

Like many Western countries, the UK has become substantially more ethnically and culturally diverse. The 2011 Census makes this crystal clear. Since 2001, the foreign-born population in England and Wales has jumped from 4.6 to 7.5m. At the same time, the ‘white British’ ethnic group shrank from 87.5-80% of the population.

What are the economic impacts of these deep demographic shifts, and what do they mean for cities? Certainly, population change has been most striking in urban areas: notably, London is now a ‘majority minority’ city for the first time in its history.

Urban factors may also affect how ‘diversity effects’ play out at firm level. Although the public debate is still focused on migrants, jobs and public services, a number of academic researchers are turning their attention to the wider impacts of immigration, minority communities and population diversity. Globally, there are now studies exploring effects on firms’ productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship, or trade patterns; and channels that may influence house prices, or the mix of local goods and services.

There’s been little parallel UK research to date – but in a new SERC Discussion Paper (supported by LLAKES) I explore the links between the composition of 6,000 English firms’ ‘top teams’ and company performance. Unusually, my data allows me to look at both ethnicity and gender mix.

What might we expect to see? Owners, partners and directors set firms strategic direction. So the make-up of a ‘top team’ might generate production externalities through diversity (a wider range of ideas/ experiences, helping problem solving) and/or ‘sameness’ (via specialist knowledge or better access to international markets). These channels may be balanced by internal downsides  (lower trust) and external barriers (discrimination), so that overall effects on business performance are unclear.

Big cities might then amplify or dampen these channels. Agglomeration economies might help productivity, and firms may benefit from large, cosmopolitan customer markets. Alternatively, firms in cities might face more competition, or minority-headed businesses might face discrimination.

My results suggest a non-linear link between top team diversity and business performance, which is net positive for process innovation and net negative for turnover. Further tests on diverse and minority/female-headed firms find positive links for diverse top teams, negative for minority and female-only top teams.

Looking at the influence of urban areas, I find some evidence of complex amplifying and dampening effects. In London, for example, diverse firms are less likely to engage in process innovation; but overall, firms in bigger cities are more likely to.

My data make it hard to identify causal effects, so I interpret these results as pure correlations. The implication is that while diversity has internal and external benefits, penalties from being ‘too diverse’ probably result from external constraints. In turn, that suggests policymakers need to encourage corporate diversity, while taking discrimination more seriously.

In a companion paper on London firms, Neil Lee and I found strong links between firm-level diversity and innovation. This paper suggests diversity-innovation links for firms outside the capital too. Core city leaders should pay attention.

This post was originally published on the Squareglasses blog