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A licence to discriminate


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

<i>Illustration: Louie Douvis</i>

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. 

But doesn’t that trade one form of discrimination for another, this time against men? 

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?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

113 comments so far

  • Could you have missed the point any more?

    Women in the workplace have always been, and continue to be discriminated against in systemic ways that simply do not apply to men. In particular, mothers, or women soon suspected of having interest in a family, are passed over for jobs.

    The *proposed* quota system would be a step to redress the obvious and existing discrimination against women, as it would sidestep the nonsensical protest of "all the best people for the job were (white, straight) men" - an obvious and convenient distortion of the facts, which is trotted out with disturbing regularity to deflect claims of ingrained sexism. Of course, it is usually howled down with reference to non-entities like "misandry" and "discrimination against men". Of course, like those who claim "reverse racism" or "heterophobia", advocates of preventing "discrimination against men" show themselves to be totally ignorant of the nature of real discrimination and disadvantage. Hint: it's NOT when someone else tries to take small steps towards equal representation in the boys-clubs that wield such extensive social and financial power based on historical privilege.

    Other groups, as you note, also face workplace discrimination, however none of them comprise a whopping 50% of the population. I do note that there have also been moves to redress discrimination in the workplace based on race, sexual orientation and disability status - and these should similarly be welcomed. I'm yet to see any evidence of a situation where qualified men are being passed over in favour of less-qualified women and minorities... in fact, the exact opposite is currently true.

    Red Pony
    Date and time
    August 31, 2012, 11:13AM
    • Well-said, Red Pony

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 12:38PM
    • But quotas are not the solution.
      Change is underway.
      Sure, it is not as fast as anyone would like but it is coming.
      The proportion of women on Australian boards has more than doubled since 2009, surely that shows that this problem is being corrected?

      The Real World
      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 1:14PM
    • Don't be so ridiculous. A quota is obviously a stupid idea. So you think forcing businesses to give people jobs that they are not qualified for just to literally "stick it to the man" is a good idea? You think that if you are in an industry where there are very few women entering it, that a company should be forced into giving the only female in the workplace, whom happens to have only a mere 6 months exprience on the job and no skills relevant to the job being advertised, a job that requires an experienced worker who with vast knowledge of the business to fulfil a government quota and avoid fines. What if said employee is then put in charge of dangerous equipment and the lives of others?

      The answer should never result in the best person not getting the job whether they are a man, a women, a muslim, an Indian, an Aborigine, a quadraplegic, or 60 years old. The answer is and always is a lot of hard work and time needs to be put in investigating real discrimination claims, and taking action against those that brake discrimination rules.

      The silly ideas they have now that encourage giving underqualified people jobs when there are better options, to make companies look better to the government and avoid legal conflict, are simply taking the easy way out to avoiding putting in the hard work needed to find a proper solution. As usual with most government policies.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 1:25PM
    • Red Pony..Get off your high horse and address the real issue. Yes there is descrimination but it is against women with children but all the affirmative action that takes place is provided to women without children. Until it addresses the real problem then any affirmative action on this front is a negative descrimination. The reason i''m so passionate about this is it affects my wife and my family and i see it as a family issue, this issue doesn't affect women without children. Feminists should alter their course on this and not use the power they hold for themselves but look at actual fairness, and include the other parties affected by this issue i.e men with children and the children themselves.

      Just a Thought
      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 1:32PM
    • But maternity leave is inherently discriminatory.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 3:28PM
    • Red pony, enforcing quotas is never a long term answer - do you seriously think that people passed over because their employer is enforcing a quota won't be upset, become negative and/or disruptive to the organisation? Like manny men, I have worked under women managers who earne their positions on ability and had no problem.

      Possibly a good example is in professional sport, for almost a century negro players were unable to play in Major League Baseball and, in the 1940's a radical group tried to force the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers to,select a number of player they had selected - the Manager refused and said that unless it happened by evolution, not revolution it would never succeed.

      He then discovered the perfect player in Jackie Robinson who proved to everyone that he had the ability, intelligence and true modesty of a champion and l the way for the influx of negro players that followed. Look at Aboriginal footballers in the AFL today, 30-40 years ago they were a rarity, now they have evolved into not only being accepted, but sought after for their ability. No quotas needed, just prove that they have the skills and ability to earn their place.

      As in everything the pioneers may have to be not only as good, but better than their competition, to make the way for those who follow as a natural consequence. After that breakthrough the rest evolves. Remember, evolution not revolution is the lating answer.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 3:42PM
    • No, Red Pony, could you have missed the point any more?

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 8:08PM
    • Quotas are not the solution. Quotas are in itself a discriminatory practice. It should always be the best person for the job, regardless of gender, race, sexuality etc.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 10:54PM
    • @Baz_Mattaz
      Where does the article or Red Pony say that a woman with far less experience than is required for a job should be given that job over a fully qualified man?

      @Just A Thought
      If you read Red Pony's post, he/she writes quite clearly: "In particular, mothers, or women soon suspected of having interest in a family, are passed over for jobs."

      I don't know enough about US ant-discrimination legislature, but the Australian Anti-Racial Act was passed in 1975. The NSW Anti-Discrinimation Act was passed in 1977. Personally, I don't think it's a coincidence that it's since then that we've seen more Aboriginals in sport. While there are more women in executive positions, it's still pretty low compared to some other, more enlightened, countries. For example, in Sweden, more than a quarter of registered companies are run by women. More than a fifth of the directors on the boards of listed companies are women, and this is also rising. Nearly half of all members of parliament, and ministers, are women. Much of this has been achieved because of their paid parental leave laws: 480 days, which can be taken by the father and 20% of which are exclusively for the father. Swedish men are far more involved in caring for thier children than Australian men. They're simply a much more egalitarian society, and much of this attitude change has occurred over time as a result of various legislation as the national psyche progressed. That is, humans evolve in a society, and the structure of that society in a large part shapes our minds.

      There may be cases where discrimination has fallen by the wayside by the means you've posted, but in most cases it's taken stronger action to kickstart the process.

      Date and time
      September 01, 2012, 8:54AM

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