Gillian McKay: Equality should not be about handpicking those we feel are needy of our benevolence

We are currently, quite rightly, occupied with the issue of equality in the workplace. I am a firm believer in equal opportunity for all and that having the correct skills and aptitude for a role is entirely divorced from characteristics such as a person’s race, sex, sexuality, age, marital status or disability.

I am equally aware of a growing appetite for further action to ensure women are placed in the higher rungs of employment. Our gender statistics show that women are less likely to occupy senior roles and consequently more likely to earn less than their male counterparts. The same is true of race and disability. One of the suggestions as to how this could be addressed is through positive discrimination when filling vacancies. I am not a fan of this suggestion as I do not believe it will result in what it sets out to achieve.

For a start, it works on the assumption that the lack of diversity is through the exercise of power in a downward direction; those on the rungs above own power and actively use it to suppress those below. Therefore, catapulting a few of the lucky ones from the lower rungs will break up the power base and allow for greater social mobility.

This only works if that, rather negative, analysis of power is correct. One of our contemporary philosophers, Michel Foucault, challenged that idea. To him, power works up as well as down and across. Power is embedded in everything and gives everything meaning and people work very hard to maintain meaning and power. This is not to say there cannot be social change, but to recognise the benefits of power. You could argue that some of the hardest elements within identity politics display this. That the status derived from maintaining a perceived victimhood is more beneficial and confers greater power than would exist through progressing mutual understanding.

On a practical level, my mistrust of positive discrimination policies comes from, and is limited to, my experience of having worked at an organisation which operated such a policy. In that environment, employees could be promoted or appointed either on their existing skills or on their potential to develop those skills.

There were several problems that arose from this. Firstly, that potential did not always materialise, leading to under-performance and mismanagement in the workplace. Secondly, although kept under wraps, it generated resentment. The resentment arose from the feeling that “in-groups” operated, of which membership was required to proceed up the ladder. Belief grew that opportunities were limited and that performance was not relevant to progress.

Thirdly, an unintended consequence was that some employees were unsure whether they had been appointed based on skills or characteristics. This probably impacted on their ability to feel proud of their achievements and confident in their own skills and decision making. Quite the reverse of what the policy had been introduced to do.

It is also worth remembering that statistics are open to misinterpretation. For example, the majority of ICAEW members are male. However, analysis shows that in the over-50 age group, men are very much the majority, reaching over 90% in those aged 70 and above. The statistics for members aged 40 and under show that women make up over 40% of membership. The discrepancy in the older age group is due to social factors that have now changed and what we are seeing is the timeline of the results. The majority of members may be male, but that does not mean as of today there is active discrimination.

I understand the appeal of positive discrimination as it seems a direct answer to a perceived inequality. However, I think the harder work is continuing to review how we assess skills and suitability for a role rather than hand picking those we feel are needy of our well-intended benevolence.

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