Discrimination in the Workplace

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Jobs for the Girls

It has been reported on the BBC that Norway is considering legislation to force companies to reserve 40% of Board positions for women. Of course this is sure to create a ballyhoo, with statements that the right person should be promoted regardless of sex or colour (as if that happens now or is likely to change very quickly in the future).

There’s no doubt that there is discrimination against women and black people in the higher echelons of many companies. The difficult choice is whether to condemn it, or do something about it. There is very little that can be done about any discrimination in workplaces except to prosecute when it can be proved (hard), or to put in place quotas. Quotas usually do the trick, but they come up against criticism that the best person is not selected when quotas are used, but just a person of the right colour, sex etc., and there is something in that criticism.

No Perfect Answer

I’m uncomfortable with quotas, but I would ask those that argue against it, firstly, do they agree that sexual discrimination happens at the higher levels, and secondly, if quotas are not to be used, how else should this unfair system of discrimination should be overcome. Is it fair that the discriminatory system should be kept in place? I always wonder, as well, at some people who get far more excited about positive discrimination rather than actual discrimination.

Sometimes, there is no perfect answer to something. In this case it is replacing one unfair system by another unfair system. When this happens, the choice is between two evils, and to my mind the greater evil is the continuation of the long term discriminatory system.

Accidental Discrimination

I think that, often, discrimination comes about, not deliberately, but accidentally, as people have a mental picture of what a senior manager or director should look like. When the mental picture changes, or becomes more inclusive, the discrimination often stops or become much less.

I’ve noticed, that after US TV programmes, which depict women or black people in certain roles, e.g. lawyers or judges, then soon there are a lot more women and black people acceding to the senior roles in the legal professions or the other professions depicted. The perception of the ‘right type of person’, you see, has changed and become more inclusive.

If there were more programmes with women and black people in senior roles in large corporations (and not just as the programme gimmick), then there would be a lot more women and black people in senior positions at major companies as the perception changes of the type of person that is ‘right for the job’.

TV Programming

TV programme writers have been lobbied about this before by both women’s and black people’s groups. There answer has always been that their writing reflects the reality, and they don’t want to be manipulating the reality. There is also the problem that viewers may not like to be force fed a social agenda. I can understand that, even though they are missing the opportunity to do some good.

I think that US TV programme writers have probably taken it more on board, and the images that they portray have helped to break down the mental images that kept discriminatory practices in place.

Quotas

In the absence of that, I would tend towards quotas, whilst realising it is the least of the bad options. I wouldn’t necessarily put it fully in place at first, e.g. that 40% of senior places have to be reserved for women immediately. There may not be 40% of women ready to sit on the board yet. You have to give companies the chance to bring them through the system first, through future planning. I might start off by making companies take 15% of women onto the Board, and gradually increasing that over a period of time to 40%. I would also only have the policy in place for a set length of time, and state that this would be the case in the beginning.

Once the mental image of the ‘right person for the job’ has changed, then there’s no need to keep a quota policy in place. There will always be some people who will always discriminate because of their deep-seated prejudices. However, I believe that the vast majority of people don’t discriminate deliberately, but accidentally, because of pre-conceived conceptions and experience of the ‘right type of person’ for the job’.

Mea Culpa?

I used to run an IT department of 80 people. I once asked one of my senior lieutenants, who happened to be black, if he thought that there was discrimination against black people at our company. He replied that he didn’t think that there was, but that he thought that there was discrimination against women. This took me aback. He asked how many senior women there were in my IT department. I had a whole lot of reasons for that of course, e.g. that a lot of the women in the department had been taken on fairly recently by myself as young graduates etc., but I wondered at the back of my mind of there was some truth in it.

I had promoted several guys recently as Project Managers and Systems Managers. I hadn’t promoted any women. I was convinced that I had picked the right people for the job (and they all later did very well), but perhaps some of the characteristics that I perceived of what I thought was necessary to be able to do the job were male characteristics (I don’t know, I’m only guessing). I certainly wasn’t deliberately discriminating – but I wasn’t promoting any women.

Lesser Evil

I think therefore that a gradually ascending system of quotas is the least of the two evils (unless somebody can think of something else), and I would go along with it – but I would only put it in place for a certain period of time, until people no longer have a mental perception of a white male in their heads as the obvious candidate for promotion. Being a white male myself, of course, I wouldn’t want any extended period of time where we were being discriminated against ourselves – only till the ‘˜mental picture‘ discrimination and unfairness had been largely eradicated.

Let‘s get smart about this, and let‘s not get entrenched. Let‘s fix the problem – then it‘s every man (or women) for himself (or herself).

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