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positive discrimination and quotas - right or wrong? And how do you justify it?

(117 Posts)
LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 10:13:09

I was wondering what you think about evening up the balance of women and men in certain professions (not politics if that's ok - seems to me it's a different discussion seeing as their job is to be representatives)? Which way(s) are best/most justifable morally - quotas? Encouraging women to apply but treating their applications just like men's? Positive discrimination during the selection process?

I'm asking because I had a conversation where I didn't feel equipped to argue my side. A friend is just starting out on a career as a conductor. I think he's very good. He knows it is a very male-dominated profession. He is really fed up because he's applying to some programmes in the states (think hundreds of applicants for a handful of places). He's heard that they encourage women to apply by interviewing virtually all women who apply - so it is much easier for women to get to the interview stage. And some places, he worries, may also accept women who are less good than men.

On the one hand, I feel for him. But I also felt angry that when I suggested women who got as far as applying to this very male-dominated course might already have had to fight quite a lot of prejudice, he dismissed this. He also reckons he should not 'have to feel guilty' about discrimination against women 'in the past'.

Should we justify positive discrimination? Does what I'm describing even count as positive discrimination, or might it not be recognition that the women applying are a self-selecting bunch? How would you feel if this was your DS or DH (it's not mine but I'm trying to think of it that way) - would you be fed up?

KRITIQ Mon 26-Sep-11 10:33:48

I grew up in the US when Affirmative Action was introduced. My dad worked in the US Postal Service and despite being fairly liberal on social matters, he was quite resentful of what he saw as "good men being passed over for jobs that were given to women." But, by the time he retired, he admitted that they hadn't fast tracked poor standard female candidates over better qualified male ones. The women were just as apt as the men, and any many cases more so because they felt they had more to "prove" to counter arguments that they got the jobs just because of their sex.

A couple of generations on, you see alot more women and people of colour in senior roles within publicly funded bodies in the US and fewer young women or young people of colour would see those positions barred to them because of their gender and ethnicity now. However, it's telling that women and representatives of minority ethnic groups are still few and far between in the very upper echelons of public services in the US and very, very rare in senior roles in the corporate sector.

Of course there are still accusations if you reach a top role that you didn't get there on merit. And, there are plenty of white blokes with whale size chips on their shoulders who insist that everything is stacked against them and they are now the new downtrodden minority.

If you did introduce any kind of "quota" system here, of course you'd get that reaction from those who refuse to believe that they were already in a privileged group before hand. Having said that, positive discrimination is unlawful in Britain, but you will still get people swearing blind that it happens and those who will insist they didn't get this or that job only because they were white and male. Those who want to believe that any challenge to their privileged position (which of course they deny exists) is unfair will mew and cry, whether you introduce full-fledged quotas or just attempt weedy, positive action targets.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 10:38:45

Yes, it seems really difficult to get rid of accusations/perceptions of inferiority once you introduce any kind of affirmative action.

I suppose I find it tricky because I have been in situations where people selecting candidates would love to take the ethnic minority over white me - but I know perfectly well it's done on merit/careful attention to background (not colour or gender). And it honestly wouldn't occur to me to feel sore about that. But then, as this guy points out, he will never benefit from positive discrimination because he is a white, upper-middle class man.

I just find it difficult to listen to someone saying 'oh, poor me' when he is, well, a white, upper-middle class man.

jamma111 Mon 26-Sep-11 11:04:53

The former Minister for Women & Equality Patricia Hewitt messed-up this entire subject in her treatement of Malcolm Hanney 'Female champion' Hewitt discriminated against man - The Independent, 2005.

Thanks to her blundering intervention in this case there will never be 'positive discrimination' through statute in the UK, and she managed to ensure that the post of 'Minister for Women' was rendered to joke status.

And Hewitt was tasked with overseeing anti-discrimination as part of her role-and got caught practising it in a kack-handed fashion.

regrettably one white middle-class bloke was able to say 'oh, poor me' and found the evidence to back it.

SybilBeddows Mon 26-Sep-11 11:11:17

Welcome to Mumsnet, Jamma111 smile What brought you to this topic?

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 11:13:33

'Thanks to her blundering intervention in this case there will never be 'positive discrimination' through statute in the UK, and she managed to ensure that the post of 'Minister for Women' was rendered to joke status.'

This seems very harsh and pessimistic to me! How can one person possibly have so much negative effect?

KRITIQ Mon 26-Sep-11 11:21:49

I think there is much more that can be achieved through genuine positive action, without resorting to a quota based system. I say genuine because I think alot of efforts in the UK so far have been a bit half-hearted, weedy and tokenistic. Employers go through the motions to appear they are doing the right thing, tick all the boxes, but do very little that is tangible to challenge or dismantle the systems that favour appointments of those who "fit in" best (which means mostly white blokes who've been to the right schools.)

Thing is, whatever you do to try and make opportunities for advancement more accessible and genuinely inclusive, whether weedy or robust, there will always be peeps who will cry foul. It will take considerable moral courage for a political leader to stick their neck out and do what they know to be right, rather than what they believe will be popular.

I don't see that happening under the current Government. They have certainly given no indication that they are particularly bothered about social, economic or political inequalities. If anything, their policies and rhetoric seem designed to shore up inequalities rather than break these down.

I doubt a more left-of-centre Government would pay much more than lip service to such action. If there were genuine commitment to gender and racial equality, we would see far more women and far more minority ethnic representatives at the senior levels within left-of-centre institutions.

meditrina Mon 26-Sep-11 11:29:50

Actually, what your friend describes seems pretty good to me. I've worked in recruitment, and when we identified an under-represented group two things happened: one was that outreach/advertising was examined to see if it was inadvertently skewed, and action taken if potential improvements were identified; the other was that all applicants from that group who met a basic level of qualification would be invited to interview. After that, there was no special treatment (it was important that standards were maintained), but it did put a wider group in front of the selection process (both testing and interview), and did help keep awareness levels up.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 11:33:18

kritiq - yes, that makes sense. The thing is, I am not convinced that there are quotas in play here. He just assumes there are because women keep getting interviews. He assumes that you'd get the number of interviews for women proportional to the number applying. But if those women have already been selected in some way (eg., if the weaker female candidates gave up long ago, earlier in the process, whereas weaker men stayd on), then this wouldn't happen.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 11:35:34

Oops, sorry meditrina.

That's interesting that it led to better awareness - do you know if there was resentment at all?

SardineQueen Mon 26-Sep-11 11:41:14

The other suggestion to put to your friend is that it takes a lot for a woman to pursue something that is very traditional and predominantly male (as I imagine conducting to be) and possibly not always a comfortable environment.

Women who are not very talented and passionate may well be dropping out, leaving only the very best and most determined in the game.

That may be why a disproportionate amount of female applicants get to interview - there are far fewer of them, maybe the ones who are left are genuinely fantastic and that is why they are getting interviews.

The old thing that in very male jobs you have to be twice as good as the men to get anywhere.

aliceliddell Mon 26-Sep-11 11:49:42

Yes Sardine, and as somebody pointed out 'Fortunately, this is not difficult' Ha! grin

meditrina Mon 26-Sep-11 11:50:22

AFAICR it didn't. Exactly who got called to interview wasn't really a topic of debate in the wider organisation. The knowledge that the our in-house selection processes were applied in the same way to all tended to put it beyond reproach as well. Senior management supported it too (important), and as we were recruiting a lot of people at the main entry levels there was no reason to feel that there were insufficient places to go round the suitable candidates. And finally, there wasn't any noticeable correlation between membership of a particular group and failure of probation (the numbers of failures were always very small, so harder to draw real conclusions, but nothing going on there that caused concern).

I wouldn't sing the praises of the internal promotions rounds though. It had improved enormously, in the sense it was meant to be evidence based. But it was always skewed by who was writing the appraisals and the question of "do you fit in" did arise then. But my hope was always that over time, a more diverse workforce would naturally mitigate against that. Those who were really good did rise (it wasn't as bad as that), but it was easier for those benefitting from nepotism to slime their way up beyond their competence.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 11:53:05

Yes, I did try to say that with the 'self selecting' bit ... I probably should have put it more the way you do.

He seems like a perfectly nice guy, so I would really like to be able to explain this to him - besides which it seems to be an issue that comes up a lot. I suppose I am looking for arguments that not-especially-feminist people would follow. I suspect if I say it's hard for women to get on in male-dominated environments, he will feel as if I am saying it is his fault. And I don't really know how to explain that it might be so?

meditrina Mon 26-Sep-11 11:59:58

I think the key thing to say would be along the lines of: "It doesn't really matter who gets called for the selection process, as long as that selection process is fair and adequate. If it isn't a fair system, then again it doesn't really matter who applies. If you don't think the process is fair and rigorous in selecting the right candidate from the field, then you need to be appealing to those who make the appointments about how they are doing it, and suggest how they can make it more unbiassed and meritocratic at that stage. Complaining about who gets to enter the race misses the point. Having the widest possible field gives the best chance of getting the best possible appointee".

jamma111 Mon 26-Sep-11 12:42:36

"Welcome to Mumsnet, Jamma111 smile What brought you to this topic?"

I've been lurking for a while and finally saw something to comment on.

A key concern, and one I've noticed is that if the recruitment system is weighted, or rendered essentially unfair to any group or groups, then it generally corrupts the entire process; I've seen the return of nepotism in a public service role only recently, dressed-up as 'favoured candidate'. Any system is only as good as the oversight applied to it.

With regards to Patricia Hewitts intervention; she was both a Minister and writer on feminist issues, and the person who could most influence the course of the discrimination debate - whereupon she promptly messed things up. During her career she did say some unfortunate things about single women and working that didn't go down well. In addition some of her written work included comments about men (not to trusted in jobs involving children) that were part of an attitude that is thankfully being challenged at present, not least by modern feminists.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 12:46:31

med, thanks - I will use the ' Complaining about who gets to enter the race misses the point. Having the widest possible field gives the best chance of getting the best possible appointee".' line, it's great.

jamma - I wasn't taking issue with your suggestion she did her job badly. It was the degree of power and blame you attributed that surprised me. She isn't superwoman - her messing up is not a huge or irrevocable mistake IMO. I can see why you feel pessimistic though.

And welcome from me too. smile

KRITIQ Mon 26-Sep-11 12:47:42

Jamma, surely the reason there is a need for positive action of some kind is because in the past, and in many settings even now, the recruitment system is weighted in favour of white, straight, non-disabled men who went to the "right" schools.

Do you suggest it should just remain that way then? If not, what do you suggest as an alternative?

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 12:47:57

using - oops, cross-posted.

I'm not sure I'm not in favour of positive discrimination, just trying to work out how to justify it, and - to be honest - the more I think about it the less I believe this particular situation is postive discrimination anyway.

Miggsie Mon 26-Sep-11 12:51:30

I was not in favour of quotas or positive discrimination until I read that women only started being employed by symphony orchestras in any significant amount after the muscians union insisted that auditions were held behind a screen so the interviewers/audtion panel could not see if the player was male/female/black/white etc.

This led to the first women in the brass sections for instance (prior to this it was agreed that women couldn't play brass as their lungs were too weak and equivalent crap).

After that I began to think well this shows that women were discriminated against quite obviously. Particularly after a woman was chosen when she was behind the screen, then she stepped out and the conductor said "oh we can't have a woman" and tried to reverse his own decision even though she had been the best person who auditioned and he'd chosen her himself when he listened to her play!!!

So goodness knows what unconcious discrimination goes on every day in other jobs.

GrimmaTheNome Mon 26-Sep-11 12:57:00

I don't like the idea of positive discrimination during recruitment. It might be better if the pre-interview screening was gender-neutral - name given just as initials/surname, no title just professional qualifications.

I work in a scientific field - there are usually more males than females but I suspect it has to do with (a) the entrenched difficulties of combining family responsibilities with this sort of career and (b) well frankly its a bit nerdy and I think there is a male-biased distribution of people who actually want to do it. I reckon its better to keep recruitment absolutely unbiased and to focus effort on policies to help deal with (a) - I've benefitted from being allowed to ask for part time work and an employer enlightened enough to want to keep talent and experience.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 12:57:25

Gosh. That is fascinating and slightly scary. You don't happen to have a source for this that I could give him, do you? It'd be brilliant if I could show him.

I think it is very natural and very problematic that people do by and large choose people like themselves and their colleagues for jobs, without even realizing it. I am lucky that my dyslexia gives me very masculine (messy!) handwriting - to the extent that when I handwrote essays and put my name on them, teachers would still try to hand them back to one of the boys in the class! I have often wondered if it had any effect on my grades.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 26-Sep-11 12:59:00

(sorry,that was to miggsie, I cross-posted).

grimma - yes, I totally agree that it's a composite problem when certain professions attract far more men or far more women.

Beachcomber Mon 26-Sep-11 13:00:59

PMSL at a white male saying that he will never benefit from positive discrimination - what does he think patriarchy is?

What does he think male privilege is? What does he think white privilege is?

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