A licence to discriminate
Illustration: Louie Douvis
Discrimination is wrong, right? Wrong. It’s right. In the right circumstances, that is. At other times it’s just plain wrong. It really depends. Confused? Yeah, me too.
So here’s how it works. Let’s say you deny a woman a promotion simply because she’s a woman. That’s discrimination of the bad variety. But let’s say you give a woman a promotion because she’s a woman – for purposes of equality – that’s good discrimination.
And let’s say you reject a job application from an older gentleman because of his age. That’s negative discrimination. But let’s say you give an older man a job because of his age – to balance out a perceived employer bias in favour of young employees – that’s positive discrimination.
In effect, what those principles dictate is that it’s OK to discriminate against men and young people, but not their opposite number. That is happening right now in workplaces … and the powers-that-be are encouraging it.
First, let’s look at women. It's true that women are under-represented in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy. The debate, though, is what to do about it.
Last year the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, came out in favour of quotas. She said: “I believe the old boys’ network is a powerful one. No one gives up power and privilege willingly, do they?”
Heather Ridout, a former head of the Australian Industry Group, supported that notion. The sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, feels the same way. Even Joe Hockey has threatened businesses with a 30 per cent quota if they don’t fix the problem quickly.
But doesn’t that trade one form of discrimination for another, this time against men?
A similar thing is occurring in relation to age. The federal government has allocated $10 million to be spent in the form of $1000 handouts to employers who give mature-age workers a job. But doesn’t that foster discrimination against young people who, by the way, endure a higher unemployment rate?
Heidi Holmes is the managing director of Adage, an online job search website that caters especially for older workers. She told me the $1000 bonus “will have little impact in persuading employers to proactively recruit from this talent pool”.
“I'm concerned it will feed into the existing negative stereotypes of mature-age workers,” Holmes said. “It could be interpreted as compensation for recruiting someone perceived to be less capable or less productive, when in actual fact, mature-age workers generally offer a better return on investment than their younger counterparts.”
She said that’s because older workers chuck fewer sickies, are more loyal, and come with an armamentarium of knowledge and experience.
Positive discrimination, otherwise known as affirmative action, is used to counter the effects of injustice and historical disadvantage. But the risk associated with it is that you will always find minority groups who will claim their right to special treatment due to a perceived prejudice.
At the moment, women and older Australians are in vogue. And yet research shows that unattractive people, gay men, short folk, fat workers and ethnic groups are discriminated against in the workplace. So, why is there no uproar in the media about the need to set quotas for those groups? Why doesn’t the government bribe employers to hire those people?
As someone who falls into a couple of those categories, my response is: thanks, but no thanks. I don’t want a job out of pity. I’d rather earn it by being the best one for it.
Anything else is really just tokenism.
What do you think? Is positive discrimination OK in certain circumstances?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis