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Friday Philosophy – The Problem of Positive Discrimination?

Have you ever (or are you currently) working in an organisation with any Positive Discrimination policies? Where, for example, there is a stated aim to have 25% of the board as female or 30% of the workforce from ethnic groups that are not of the majority ethnic group in your geographic location? How do you feel about that? Is positive discrimination a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t decide.

{Big Caveat! Before anyone wants to give me the same sort of hassle as a tiny few did recently over a related post, note that I am just wondering aloud and whilst I encourage comments and feedback, I reserve the right to block or delete any comments that I feel are abusive or discriminatory or simply from the unhinged. Just saying. Also I am mostly going to reference women as the aim for positive discrimination, as the blog got really untidy when I swapped between different types of discrimination. I apologise if anyone is offended by that – it is not intended.}

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable with the concept of positive discrimination and if I wind back the clock to my early 20’s, back then I was quite angrily dead set against it – on the grounds that it is still discrimination. It seemed to me then that it was a simple yin/yang concept. If discrimination is wrong, it’s wrong and “positive” discrimination is in fact just discrimination against the majority. Wrong is wrong. Stealing is wrong, be it from the poor or the rich or from organisations. All those post-it notes I’ve stolen over the years? Bad Martin.

So what has changed about my opinion? Well, I think that as we all get older we tend to be able to better consider the wider picture and less black/white about most of our philosophies {my personal opinion is that those who don’t modify their opinions in light of more experience and greater thought are, well, not maturing}. I can’t but accept that the business/IT work place as a whole is male-dominated and is riddled with sexism. This does not mean *at all* that all or even most men in business/IT are sexist, but the statistics, studies and countless personal experiences make it clear that the pay, success and respect of women are impacted.
A way to counteract that is to encourage more women to work in IT (or science or whichever area they are under-represented in) and show that they are just as effective in senior positions by tipping the balance in their favor. Positive discrimination is one way of doing that. Is the small evil of this type of discrimination acceptable if it first counteracts and then helps overturn and melt the large evil of the massive inequalities we currently have? Once equality is there (or you are at least approaching it) you drop the little evil of positive discrimination? But how else do you balance the books until the issue has been addressed? My own perception is that sexism and racism at least are reduced from what they were when I first started working, maybe positive discrimination is a significant factor in that? Maybe it is more that society has shifted?

Part of me likes the Women In Technology {try search on hashtag #WIT but you get loads of things that are labelled as “witty” as well} events and discussions such as supported in the Oracle sphere by Kellyn PotVin-Gorman and Debra Lilley amongst others. I much prefer to have a balanced workforce. But when I’ve been to a talk about it or seen online discussions, there often seems to be an element of “we hate men” or “all men are out to put us down” that, frankly, insults me. In fairness I’ve also seen that element questioned or stopped by the female moderators so I know they are aware of the problem of Men Bashing. After all, for reasons I have gone into in a prior post, as a small man I empathise with some of their issues – so to be told all men are the problem is both personally an affront and also… Yes, it’s discrimination. I should not have to feel I need to justify my own non-sexism but I do – My work, hiring and promoting history demonstrates I treat both sexes as equal. If I think you are rubbish at your job, it has nothing to do with how many X chromosomes you have.

I mentioned above “the little evil of positive discrimination” and that is certainly how I see it. I think of it as wrong not just because of the yin/yang simplistic take on right and wrong but because positive discrimination can have negative effects. Forcing a percentage of the workforce or management to be from a specified group means you are potentially not hiring the best candidates or putting the less capable into those positions. If your workforce is 10% female, not at all unusual in IT, then it is unlikely the best candidates for management are 25% female. They might be, it might be that 40% of them are female as they have managed to demonstrate their capabilities and stick with the industry despite any extra challenges faced. But to have a false percentage strikes me as problematic. Another issue is that of perceived unfair advantage or protection. How would any of us feel if we did not get a job or position as someone else got it on the basis of their sex, colour or disability to fulfill a quota? People are often bad tempered enough when they fail to get what they want. Over all, I think positive discrimination leads to a level of unease or resentment in the larger group not being aided. NOTE – I mean on average. I do not mean that everyone (or even most) feels resentment. And those who do vary in how much each individual feels upset by it.

I know a few people, including myself, who have hit big problems when disciplining or even sacking someone who is not a white male. I’ve had HR say to me “we are going to have to be very careful with this as they are {not-white-male}”. I asked the direct question of would this be easier if the person was a white male? – And they said, frankly, yes. It’s hard not to let that get your back up. I’ve seen this make someone I felt was pretty liberal and balanced become quite bigoted. That is positive discrimination being a little evil and having exactly the opposite effect as intended. That HR department was, in my opinion, getting it wrong – but I’ve heard so many similar stories that I feel it is the same in most HR departments across the UK, US and maybe Europe too. I can’t speak about other places.

I know a few women who are also very uncomfortable with positive discrimination as it makes them feel that either they got something not on the basis of their own abilities or others see it that way from looking in.

I’ve occasionally seen the disparity in numbers seen as a positive – I knew a lady at college who loved the fact she was only one of 3 women out of just over a hundred people in her year doing a degree in Computer Science. I was chatting to her {at a Sci-fi society evening, where she was also markedly out-numbered by the opposite sex} about how it must be daunting. She laughed at me in scorn – It was great! She said she stuck out and so got better responses when she asked questions in lectures, she had no trouble getting help off the over-worked tutors as they were keen to be seen to not be discriminatory and, as you mostly “met people” via your course or your societies, she pretty much had her pick of a hundred+ men. That told me.

So all in all, I still do not know if I am for or against positive discrimination. I guess I just wish it was not necessary. If there really was no discrimination, we would not question how many female, black, asian, disabled, short, fat, ginger, protestant people there were doing whatever we do.

{sorry for the lack of humour this week, I just struggled to squeeze it into such a delicate topic}