Monday, 31 March 2014

Positive Gender Discrimination at work - friend or foe?

‘Foe’ of course, right? You, I and the other hard working women who totally and utterly deserve the advancement we come by through hard graft and lack of bullshit are going to strongly resent any implication that we got our jobs for any other reason. And how we feel is what matters right?

The real answer depends on whether we want equality in the workplace just because at this particular moment we are working hard and quite want to be rewarded for that or if we feel that by and large human institutions and processes would by and large benefit from a greater heterogeneity of view, risk appetite and talent than it has at the moment.

In many areas (including genetics, cooking or friendships) heterogeneity wins hands down over sameness (nothing worse than being too matchy-matchy).

Why not then in business?

If we say that in general (and, smarting from the recent financial crisis, some have been saying this a bit louder recently) a more varied attitude to analysis, risk assessment, or communication style would benefit business and therefore the wider environment, how the hell do we get there at a less than glacial pace?

Let me be clear, I’m not talking here about full scale regulatory quotas. But as we stand today, without some affirmative action, we aren’t going to get to anything like the mix we need in my working lifetime. In fact, it feels like in London at any rate, with the rising cost of living / childcare and increased hours demanded at work, we are going quietly but quickly backward.

In every other aspect of life, we KNOW that equality in the future is an entirely useless way to make up for an inequality that exists already. Adding 1 to both sides will never make 3 equal 3000 and if I and my extremely skinny friend both put on weight  at a rate of 2 pounds a month, guess what? She’ll still be thinner in a year’s time.

Anyway, let’s face it, equal policies don’t work in practice anyway.  The path up will be harder and managing to stay up there and keep your sanity will be way way way harder for a woman on average than for a man.
In other words unless there is positive discrimination the end result will never be equal and we’ll all be worse off, both men and women.

The fact that you and I instinctively don’t want our achievements to be ‘devalued’ by positive discrimination shouldn’t be the main factor and constantly surveying women who have ‘made it’ how they feel about gender-related affirmative action is like asking an oligarch whether he thinks lots of other people should own gas pipelines too. It really isn’t the point.

The very fact that we are worrying about the slender chance that in some scenarios we might be ever so slightly advantaged just shows how unequal this is! Ever heard of an old boys’ crony network worrying about whether they might not quite have earned their job, construction licence or presidency? Me neither. Ever heard a city boy turning down a promotion because it isn’t quite fair that he can work 18 hour days and then shag his secretary whilst his wife stays home and wipes his babies’ bums? Nope, I’ve not heard that one either.

Of course it’s possible for an individual woman to 'make it' without positive discrimination. Indubitably, in order to sustain her progress over time, and certainly if she has a family, she is going to be need to be a lot better than her male competitors to do so. The real question is, therefore, is it possible or fair to expect millions of women to all be better than all their male competitors by such a margin that the overall environment begins to equalise?  

It is inspiring and energising to find women who are better, faster, more capable, break more boundaries and are just downright braver than their male counterparts. It is however, in my view, deeply unfair to demand it as ‘standard’ of our entire sex.