In the debate about gender equality, terms like “positive discrimination” and “quotas” get a bad press.  Both men and women tend to feel uncomfortable with the concepts.  But it’s time we got real about this.  We do not yet have equality in the workplace.  After years of anti-discrimination laws and equal pay legislation, there is still a significant gender pay gap.  Women are still not well represented in the board room.  There are still assumptions about female roles, and corresponding biases, that affect people of all genders.

Something needs to be done.  And that something requires us to be bold.  Fussing about positive discrimination being unethical is for the person who wants to preserve the status quo or the one who’s reluctant to cause trouble.  And unfortunately that does appear to be our choice: to stir up trouble, or to make scant progress.

The key questions are: is the status quo really good enough?  Will the current pace of change – often painfully slow – suffice?  Is it OK for our own children to suffer discrimination, and their children too?  For me, no.  I think we all deserve better.

Facebook recently announced that they will require women and ethnic minorities to account for at least 33% of the law firm teams they engage.  I salute them for that.  If you cannot see for yourself that, say, 10% women is inappropriate, then someone must step in and say it for you.

So what are the arguments that make us wary of positive discrimination?

The one about fairness
It wouldn’t be fair if women were given a “helping hand” but men weren’t.

I agree.  But are we sure men aren’t already being given a helping hand, thanks to the stereotypes and biases which still appear to pervade the modern workplace?  It certainly looks as though something is helping them to occupy the majority of higher paid, higher status jobs.  The current imbalance isn’t fair either.  Not remotely.

Why shouldn’t women be given a helping hand?  They already have to shout louder, fight stronger, be more ready to prove themselves, work harder to fit in.  Surely a helping hand at this stage is only levelling the playing field?

The professions lived for years with the idea that someone should be recruited or promoted because of his gender.  Whilst we clearly don’t want to repeat such atrocious discrimination, we first need to restore some sense of equity.  Balancing your future income and expenditure won’t help unless you also find a way to pay off your debts.

The one about merit
We want to recruit and promote on merit.

Of course we do.  But with fewer than 50% women in many professional workplaces, and numbers declining the higher up the ladder you climb, we are clearly not recruiting or promoting on merit at the moment.

Let’s be brutal about this: there are few if any jobs where women have been proven to be less capable than men.  Sure, some women have less aptitude than others, just as some men have less aptitude than others.  But these differences are not caused by their gender per se.  If merit really were our sole criterion, we’d have achieved 50% already.

I understand when women say they don’t want to feel they’ve been hired for the wrong reasons.  I get that.  But we must also ask ourselves: is it any better to be rejected for the wrong reasons?

Of course I’m not saying you should recruit a woman who is not up to the job.  But if you have two equally good applicants, one male and one female, there’s a case for taking the one who will improve the overall diversity of your team, and whose presence there will help you attract further female recruits.  Again, so as to redress the balance.

And if you consistently find yourself recruiting men rather than women, take a good hard look at how you’re defining “merit”.  See if you get the same result using name-blind CVs.

The one about childcare
Women are biologically programmed to do the childcare.  And so, women are inevitably going to want to take career breaks, which will inevitably set back their careers, which will inevitably reduce their presence in senior roles.  It can’t be helped.

The argument isn’t always phrased in quite this way.  There are references to the physiological constraints of giving birth and lactating.  But giving birth and breastfeeding, in the grand scheme of things, do not actually keep a woman from her work for long.  The underlying argument is about the subsequent childcare and home-keeping roles.

Saying that women are innately better suited (some use the terms “programmed” or even “hard-wired”) to looking after the children and home, is like saying that someone who has to drive for a living is innately more skilled behind the wheel.  If you have to do something, day in day out, of course you become better at it.

Society would also have us believe that women are innately better at cleaning, shopping, cooking and generally looking after all manner of dependants.  They are also, apparently, innately better at working for lower pay.  How convenient.  These are artificial constructs and we must challenge them.

I have met people who are reluctant to recruit both mothers and potential mothers, for fear that they might lack commitment, need more time off, be unable to travel, and of course – the biggest crime of all – take maternity leave.  This should not be a gender problem.  Human beings need to reproduce; both men and women want children.  The price we pay is that for part of their adult lives, parents need to work differently.  This is only a gender issue if you assume that the women will be the parents and not the men.  Sorry, but it’s time we moved on from that.  Men want to be parents too.  And – equally to the point – if they don’t, they shouldn’t have children.  They certainly shouldn’t have them at the cost of a good woman’s career.

In my experience, men are no worse at child care than they are at any of the other jobs they take on.  And if they are, they need more practice.

As for lack of commitment, may I remind you just how hard people have to work to juggle a career and childcare responsibilities?  What a loyal, indefatigable and rigorously organised project manager you need to be simply to arrive at work in the morning?  What communication and time management skills you build as you go?  This is commitment on a massive scale: it should be valued as a measure of employability.

There is nothing inevitable about women taking career breaks, or rather, about women taking more career breaks than men.  There is nothing inevitable about a career break stunting someone’s prospects on their return.  It is only when you choose to devalue childcare, using it as a neat excuse to sideline half of your workforce, that these things happen.  And if by “positive discrimination” we mean reversing that mindset, then discriminate we must, until both men and women can take on childcare and neither be penalised for it.

The one about male insecurity
If we’re not careful, the white heterosexual male will become an endangered species.

This argument tends to accompany the one about: “Why can’t we have a Men in IP support group too?”

Is this what men are afraid of?  Being overwhelmed by women in the workplace?  Needing to huddle together for protection against the armies of incoming not-men?

Excuse me???  Is it not a little, er, tactless, when you outnumber women by at least two to one in many contexts, to complain about losing that majority?  A majority that is neither justified nor equitable?  Can you really look us in the eye and say it’s right to retain the current male dominance?

Fifty percent women is all we want.  And if 50% seems unnatural, that is only because we are so used to the paltry figures we’re currently putting up with.  50% is not unreasonable.  50% is not overwhelming.

Until we reach a point where board meetings and partners’ meetings do not in fact look like Men in IP support groups, actually there is little risk of male professionals becoming extinct.

A female chemistry professor once shared with me some very wise thoughts on gender quotas.  She used the analogy of a chemical reaction, that once initiated will establish equilibrium conditions, but that needs a certain amount of energy to be applied before it can begin.  Sometimes it needs heat to get it started, sometimes a catalyst.  So it is with the gender imbalance.  What we want is to reach an equilibrium, where men and women are equally represented, and are both recruited and promoted on merit alone.  A workplace in which gender is hardly noticed.  But in order to reach that equilibrium, we need to kick-start the changes that precede it.  We need to sacrifice a principle – that discrimination is unfair – because we are simply not going to reach the other side unless we do.  Or, if you prefer an economic metaphor, we are currently so far in deficit that good housekeeping alone will never bring us the financial health we seek; an initial investment is crucial.

For that reason, positive discrimination and gender quotas do, I believe, have their place in the fight for equality – a fight that is not yet over.  We need to accept that full equality still eludes us, and use every available tool to secure it.

It hardly needs mentioning that this applies not just to the gender debate, but also to achieving equality in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and many other currently undervalued criteria.

Because if positive discrimination is wrong, how much more so is the system that makes it necessary?

Andrea Brewster
IP Inclusive leader

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