Can discrimination ever be positive?

More CEOs are called John than are female. The UK parliament has a lower percentage of female MPs (30 per cent) than its equivalent in Sudan. Women are paid 78 pence for every pound a man makes, and this pay gap increases with seniority.
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We hear statistics like these so often that they’ve lost their ability to shock. Most of us recognise that sexism exists in the workplace. Most of us wish it didn’t. But despite the great progress the feminist movement has made, ingrained misogyny is so endemic in the world of work that the odds of seeing true gender equality anytime soon seems highly unlikely.

Enter, positive discrimination. Positive discrimination aims to accelerate equality by forcing companies to pick women over men for professional opportunities. Unsurprisingly, it’s highly controversial. But can it work?

Isn’t it discriminatory towards men?

Combating gender discrimination with, well, gender discrimination seems hypocritical. After all, by its nature positive discrimination means that well-qualified men will lose out purely because of their sex.

The problem with this concern is that said men have been benefiting from their gender since birth. They are 15 per cent more likely to be promoted. They earn 20 per cent more. They are more likely to be described as “creative thinkers”. Unlike women, they are generally assumed to be competent until they prove to be otherwise, and they are more likely to have any incompetence they do display overlooked.

Positive discrimination just takes away a portion of this unfairly-gained privilege. It doesn’t set men back so much as set them on equal footing with women. Think of it like golf, where strong players are given a handicap to ensure that everyone can compete on an equal basis.

But What If Women Aren’t Qualified Enough?

There are approximately 3.5 billion women on the planet. Is it really feasible that a company will not be able to find a single one qualified enough for the position they’re offering?

Hiring an unqualified candidate for an important position is indeed a foolish business decision. But few advocates of positive discrimination are calling for that (and besides, it’s illegal). Instead, the suggestion is that when faced with two equally-qualified candidates, the female one is preferred.

If that sounds icky to you, bear in mind that this is already happening unchecked on a grand scale, but in the other direction. Unconscious gender bias is a psychological quirk proven by science. It is so prevalent that in some industries hiring managers choose men twice as often as women for jobs they are both qualified for.

Because at least some of this sexism is unconscious, companies often don’t see it as a problem. Making it clear to them that all-male management structures will no longer fly, however, puts the pressure on to do something about it. In practice, that should mean greater investment in all their female employees, nurturing talent from the early stages to ensure a wide cohort of highly-qualified women positioned to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Won’t It Undermine Women’s Skills?

There are valid concerns that positive discrimination could exacerbate the problem of female employees being perceived as incompetent. Even if a woman was the stand-out best candidate, the argument goes, colleagues and clients will assume she owes her position to her gender, and not respect her.

Unfortunately, this lack of respect for professional women and their qualifications already exists. Half of UK women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Successful women are accused of sleeping (or marrying) their way to the top. Men habitually interrupt women in the workplace and steal their ideas.

It can seem glib to assert that if women are going to be professionally disrespected regardless, it is better for them to be disrespected from a position of power. But helping women into leadership roles has the additional benefit of providing an avenue to tackle misogynistic culture head-on. Female leaders are role models to younger women, who see them as proof that they can achieve success. Men used to working for female bosses are less likely to question women’s aptitude in general. And powerful women have more scope to take action against instances of workplace misogyny.

But aren’t women catching up anyway?

Workplace sexism is dead, according to a majority of men. Certainly, it is hard these days to open a tabloid newspaper without finding a lurid tale of how ‘brazen’ career women are trampling all over poor little men in the workplace

Some of the statistics used to back up these misguided views are sound: women are 35 per cent more likely to have a degree than men, they are more likely to land places on graduate schemes, and they outperform men on a number of business metrics. Moreover, a huge majority (81 per cent) of men and women now believe women should be treated equally in every way.

Hence the conclusion that despite the sexism of the past, women’s star is now in the ascendency. Yes, the top dogs are still overwhelmingly male, but that’s because it takes time for anyone to become a CEO. Give it a generation or so, and we’ll see an equal workplace without the need for any positive discrimination meddling.

There are several problems with this attitude. Firstly, it is highly unfair to the current generation of talented women who are essentially being told that they missed the gender-equality boat. Secondly, it ignores the huge costs sexism imposes on our society; costs that only grow with every passing day.

Companies with gender-diverse boards perform better. They have higher earnings, higher returns on equity, and better share price performances. Fully utilising the skills of women could add an annual £15-£21 billion pounds to the UK economy every year. Closing the gender gap in agriculture could reduce global hunger by 12-17 per cent.

Everyone benefits from a more equal world. The time to act is now.


About the author:

Beth Leslie writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs listings for roles. Or; if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.

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