Affirmative Action: the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.
Artist: Angus Maguire. Original available from interactioninstitute.org and madewithangus.com
Over the last few weeks, we’ve held several workshops, with participants from various cultural backgrounds, on addressing gender bias to create inclusive organisations. In all our sessions, when we’ve shown participants the image above, it has led to a debate on affirmative action – whether it works, whether it benefits minorities and whether we recommend affirmative action for companies. This article addresses some of these questions.
Equity and Equality
Before we talk about Affirmative Action, it’s important to understand what we mean when we say equity and equality and why we differentiate between the two terms. As the image shows, equality, which is ultimately our goal, is being fair and treating everyone the same. However, we see that this fair treatment may not always give everyone the same access to opportunities – the shortest boy cannot see the game. This is where equity comes in – it involves providing individuals with the unique support they need in order to have equal access to opportunities i.e. giving the shortest boy an extra boost so he can see like everyone else instead of giving the tallest man a boost that he may not need.
Quotas and targets
The concern that a lot of participants had when they looked at this image, was the thought of losing a true meritocracy in the workplace and hiring and promoting based on race, gender, religion etc. Diversity is now seen as desirable for companies, with research indicating that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity outperform companies in the bottom quartile for diversity[i]. In order to improve their diversity, companies have created diversity targets, encouraged “diversity hires” and some have even set up quotas to push diversity and achieve more balanced numbers as part of their efforts for creating better balanced leadership teams.
Our participants were concerned that all the above can create a greater hurdle to inclusion, instead of resolving the issue. “Diversity hires” can be seen as less deserving by their colleagues and may be viewed with resentment or contempt. They may have to work harder to prove themselves compared to their peers and this might foster more competition, instead of inclusion, resulting in less innovative, effective and profitable teams.
The main goal of “affirmative action” was to communicate to firms something like “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” However, what they were supposed to do, aside from not discriminating, was unspecified[ii]. This resulted in the targets and goals and opposition from parties who believed that banning discrimination would promote diversity without the need for unfair quotas that are perceived to penalise those in the majority; or people who cannot understand how discrimination could end discrimination.
Diversity or merit?
One of the chief criticisms of affirmative action is that it seems to erode meritocracy, and in turn reduces the competitive advantages of a society and economy built on talent[iii]. While a completely meritocratic society, i.e. an equal society where all individuals have access to the same opportunities regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity etc., is what we are ultimately striving for, we also need to analyse our current systems: is our status quo truly meritocratic? Or do some individuals still benefit from privileges and advantages that have nothing to do with merit?
If the answer is yes, addressing these issues without compromising on the meritocracy is what equity is meant to achieve and, while discriminating to end discrimination would not work, increasing diversity has helped to change attitudes towards diverse groups. So, while “diversity hires” are counterproductive, actively seeking out diversity is helpful. An example of this is a company who, recognising that they lacked gender diversity, began actively seeking out CVs from diverse candidates in order to create a more diverse candidate pool from which they could still select staff based on merit.
Instead of targets and quotas, we need systemic changes within companies and society — targeted recruitment, mentoring programs, open skill and management training, and diversity task forces — which can lead to significant and persistent increases in workforce diversity and opportunity[iv].
Ask yourself the following:
- What are the current numbers in terms of diverse representation across all levels of my company?
- What are the possible reasons for any imbalances I have?
- How can I address these imbalances in
- The hiring process at all levels by ensuring I have a diverse candidate pool
- Promotions and performance reviews by removing any potential unconscious biases existing leaders might have and actively encouraging diverse staff
- Talent retention by understanding the reasons why diverse candidates might not thrive in the current work environment
- How can I further support my diverse talent? (Don’t be afraid to ask your staff what they need)
- How can I create workplace policies and practices that will benefit not just my diverse talent, but the existing majority as well eg. flexible work arrangements and greater work life balance.
The key to getting the best out of your workforce and staff is creating a real culture of inclusion in the workplace. This can be done by getting to the root cause of exclusion and a lack of diversity instead of setting targets that do not truly promote an inclusive workplace culture we all seek and benefit from.
[iii] Forbes, How Valid Are The Arguments Against Affirmative Action?, Apr 2021
[iv] Harvard Business Review, Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training, Oct 2020.
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