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Friday Philosophy – The Problem of Positive Discrimination? February 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

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}



1. Debra Lilley - February 27, 2015

Let me repeat, positive discrimination is wrong. In IT the issue is not women getting jobs it is women not entering the IT workforce. At board level, having a rule that says you must have at least one female candidate is good, but the winning candidate must be the best person for the job regardless of sex. Men need to make women feel more welcome, but more than that old fashioned teachers need to give real career advice, and encourage women to look at it.

I live where positive discrimination is rife, on the basis of religion and it sucks. And whilst I like a man who buys the drinks, i’ll be modern and equal and buy you a drink to discus further. Sat down though, i don’t want to look down on you 🙂

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

Well, Ireland is only 3 weeks away so we can can have a good talk about it then. I demand there be a 25% representation of Jedi Knights though…

Thank you for the comment and I very much agree that it is important that teachers (at all ages) don’t pigeon hole careers to gender. I like the idea of forcing a consideration of candidates without a percentage of board members. I can see it being done but ignored (much as the forcing of considering external candidates for every public sector job – when everyone knows Jessica is right for the position) but it’s a nudge not a club.

2. KV - February 27, 2015

I’m not a fan of positive discrimination. I believe I was short listed for a Unix admin job because I was a pregnant female. There has not been another woman hired since in 16 years. I guess I filled the quota and still do despite morphing to DBA! So I believe I got a great opportunity because of positive discrimination but I have still been the brunt of work based sexism over the years. It didn’t make a mark on general attitudes of some of the men I work with. IT, more technical admin than development, has problems attracting women but I’m for promoting equality by not tolerating sexism than shouting about women as a special entity.

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

I have to say, I don’t know why it is but some of the most misogynistic people I have encountered were Sys admins and network guys. Just being a capable woman in that arena probably does more good than you realise. Just don’t use the Fist of Death too much (unless you are wearing red)

3. Long suffering wife - February 27, 2015

I’ve been a woman in IT for around 20 years now, in areas which are almost exclusively a male domain, initially DBAing ( I was a DBA before Martin and think I can still do command line database tasks. GUIs make you lazy in my opinion.) Then IT audit, which is even more male dominated. I know long ago I always was put at the front in video conferences so they could proudly say ‘we have a woman on our team’ , and indeed, despite being very good at my job, did wonder if promotions were based on my ability or due to positive discrimination.

I travel pretty extensively, and in some places I’ve been to, a female IT auditor is a rarity. Only la few months ago I was on audit with my team, and it was assumed I was there to take notes. So my team, taller older men, took great delight in telling everyone I was ‘the boss’ at every possible opportunity and got me to do the REALLY geeky stuff..( ok databases and dat migration and transformation still excite me… A bit)

In some ways, I think the environment has changed for women in IT over the last 20 years. I no longer feel I have to dress to ‘fit in with the masses’ , so now am comfortable dressing as I wish. Yes, wearing a red dress at an IT conference or audit makes me stand out, but it has the advantage of not showing the blood if I accidentally slaughter someone..

I have to admit I was slightly suspicious about this post, and wondered if it was to persuade the woman in IT who is currently financing Mr Widlake’s retirement to make him a pavlova this weekend, However I might just give him the benefit of the doubt, as long as my dinner is ready on time.

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

I would never, ever sink so low as to write a blog post just to get treats cooked for me.

Who am I kidding, my next post will be titled something like “I love my wife even more than my laptop!”.

Being serious, maybe one of the reasons I am not afflicted with a sexist attitude to women in IT/management is that I’ve been exposed to several very capable women in that area, especially the one I married. But also my departmental boss in my first job, the female DBA at my first assignment within Oracle, several developers there and in the NHS, the woman who told me I was too short to object to heightism and many more. So getting more women into IT/Science/Engineering (Err, STEM I think it is) is key to ongoing acceptance and the melting of sexist attitudes. Still not keen on the positive discrimination though.

4. Long suffering wife - February 27, 2015

Which laptop?????

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

Errr… oh heck, she remembered I have 2 laptops.

5. Neil Chandler - February 27, 2015

Being a heterosexual white middle-class male (which I just about qualify as, although I’m really working class) is like playing the computer game on “easy” mode. For many careers, it’s the same game but the difficulty level to succeed as a minority is playing the game on “medium” or “hard” level, depending upon the “minority” to which you belong. Note: the “minority” may be a discriminated-against majority.

There is a real case for positive discrimination of minorities until parity is reached. How you positively discriminate is the hard part. The Rooney Rule is a positive example – there MUST be minority candidates, but there is no obligation to hire them and no specific quota to fill.

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

I really like the computer game level analogy.

6. Speechless - February 27, 2015

I know this is not gender-based discrimination but in my current team (of DBAs and Middleware people), most of the people were working for the previous vendor. One has got TUPEd and others have (cleverly) resigned and joined current company with much better pay packet and positions. Now, they all “look after” each other. Is this not discrimination? It has been almost 10 years working here and inevitably the person at “the top” (not director or president but even project managers, team leaders) are “indigenious people” in spite of lack of skills and competence. Positive Discrimination ??

mwidlake - February 27, 2015

Not really in the way I was talking about – I was discussing where organisations are making a distinction based on a culturally based bias (be it gender, race, sexuality, religious) and giving them a false advantage. What you seem to be describing is either intra-team fighting or an old-boy-network? Possible “gang” warfare in the workplace? All, I’d suggest, come under office politics.

7. jgarry - February 27, 2015

The excellent headhunter lady who got me my second most favorite job ever, a few years later put together a business based on the women/minority preferences given in our area, and invited me to be part of it as a technical star. Unfortunately, she was not near as good at that as at headhunting, and it went nowhere (as something over half of all new businesses do anyways). But it does illustrate a failing of this kind of preference; titular heads. She failed to see that she needed a business development expert. Anyone in a startup needs honest feedback on their failings and blind spots, it’s a newbie managerial error to keep control of everything.

The classic reverse-discrimination lawsuit in California was the Bakke case, where specific quotas for classroom diversity were ruled unconstitutional http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30462129/ns/us_news-life/t/does-affirmative-action-punish-whites/ (I hope the analogy to WIT is obvious.)

There are always going to be unintended consequences no matter how you deal with these kinds of issues. You have to do something, they won’t fix themselves. LSW’s “taking notes” comment is interesting in light of how few secretaries there are these days, at least from what I see compared to 35 years ago. No single edict handed down from on high is going to fix things. There have to be legal, social, marketing efforts, as well as clear goals. Some goals may be unattainable, if there are actual genetic reasons certain people are better at some things than others. Tabula rasa is dead, the real danger is not properly evaluating people’s limits. If you are color blind and tone deaf, you probably don’t want to be in an arts or Idol competition.

WIT should encourage people, not overpromise or become a vehicle for bashing.

mwidlake - February 28, 2015

Thanks for that Joel, a very considered comment. The article on reverse dsscrimination was interesting. I think the US has more issues than Europe when it comes to race due to historical reasons – massive inequalities in the US were only just coming to an end when I was born and continued under the surface for a long time after. I would suggest they still exist but as I am not living in the US, my opinion is highly questionable on that. I suspect there is still a fair bit of balancing the books to do, and we still have issues in the UK and the rest of Europe. IT in the UK is mostly Caucasian with a constantly growing Asian contingent.

I would not agree that Tabula rasa is dead, it is modified. (To explain for others – tabula rasa is the idea that how we think and what we can achieve mentally is 100% nurture, ie how we are brought up and trained has total impact on our mental capabilities and there is no pre-set abilities or limits defined by our heritage). As a geneticist I cannot but recognise that there is a genetic component to all of us based on our heritage, but there is also the variation within our historical ethnic background as well as between them, the impact of epigenetics (we have genes turned up and turned down by environmental factors and *they can span a generation or more*) and nurture has been demonstrated to have a significant impact on cognition, mental intelligence and physical intelligence (eg being good with your hands). As ever, it is a complex mix. In some ways our genetic heritage is getting more complex with each generation as we are no longer so geographically bound, but it is also becoming simpler as we are truly becoming one genetic nation, irrespective of political boundaries (that’s countries).

Wow, pretty deep for late on a Friday night!

jgarry - March 3, 2015

Thanks, I had forgotten you were a geneticist! :-O

To me, it appears the racial thing is getting worse in the US (backlash from Obama, not least), and you may have analogous backsliding on your continent with respect to the Jewish Problem. (Being Jewish, I may be more sensitive to that, but I saw it when I was there [“Jews are persecuting Kurt Waldheim!”], and it’s not looking too good now.)

8. Noons - March 2, 2015

“there often seems to be an element of “we hate men” or “all men are out to put us down” that, frankly, insults me”.
Couldn’t agree more. And quite frankly I’m even less polite when some folks assume that I “must be a misogynist” because of my racial and/or cultural background, without ONCE ever having talked to me or worked with me!
And quite frankly, I think workplace hiring policies centered around hiring competent and experienced folks are a much more sensible approach than ones based on “positive” discrimination.
The whole concept of the word “positive” used together with the word “discrimination” is imbecile in the extreme!

9. Boneist - March 2, 2015

You might like to read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-straight-talk-for-white-men.html?_r=0 which does (IMHO) a good job of explaining the unconcious bias that exists amonst people. Positive discrimination kinda makes sense when it’s intended to counteract that unconcious bias.

mwidlake - March 2, 2015

Thanks for that – a very good article. I especially like “It’s not that we white men are intentionally doing anything wrong, but we do have a penchant for obliviousness about the way we are beneficiaries of systematic unfairness. Maybe that’s because in a race, it’s easy not to notice a tailwind, and white men often go through life with a tailwind, while women and people of color must push against a headwind.” – so similar to Neil’s comment on playing the game on easy.

I think all in all I just don’t like positive discrimination and there are situations where being from a traditionally discriminated group gives you extra protection (eg the “being sacked” example in my post) – but I’m firmly of the opinion that heterosexual-white-males (especially taller ones :-} ) are at a significant advantage.

10. Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office | Martin Widlake's Yet Another Oracle Blog - December 4, 2015

[…] men-bashing and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of […]

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