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Many business leaders have reservations about positive discrimination. The term tends to be associated with radical action such as quotas and — unlike the US — the UK does not have a history of using positive discrimination in this way. In fact, it’s unlawful. Bosses can also be dismissive of the idea that they should do anything other than focus on promoting or hiring the person who — right here and now — will do the best work.
Aside from a few prominent examples, such as the Labour party’s all-women shortlists, the philosophy behind what in the US is known as “affirmative action” has a tenuous toehold in the UK. Efforts to address institutionalised prejudice in employment tend to be attempts at functional blindness: most responsible companies say they do their best to treat everyone in the same way, whatever their ethnicity, disability, sexuality, sex or gender identity.
But while quotas are controversial, there is little doubt that they achieve their immediate aims. In Norway, women’s representation on corporate boards rose from 9 per cent in 2003 (when quotas were introduced) to 40 per cent in 2013. The UK’s Equality Act of 2010 made it explicitly lawful to use much more limited mechanisms (under the umbrella term “positive action”), for example in a “tie-break” situation — when you have two equally good candidates for one position.
In all my years of hiring, I have never encountered that particular scenario, so I am not sure how powerful a force for change it can really be (plus, of course, both candidates might object to the decision being made on that basis). But it is at least a simple mechanism that does not interfere with the bottom line.
For many of us, though, the bottom line is not all that matters. The fact remains that one social group — middle-class white men — have enjoyed untrammelled positive discrimination for years without bringing commerce to its knees. (Goodness knows, they came close: a Finnish study published this year found “banks with female chief executive officers or chairs had more conservative capital levels and were less likely to have failed during the financial crisis than banks run by men”).
Only this month, a Mumsnet poll of more than 400 people involved in recruitment found 28 per cent had heard someone who was responsible for hiring say that, given the choice between an equally capable man and woman, they would always choose the man — the very definition of positive discrimination.
I have always believed in the value of a diverse workforce, both because it helps companies to address an equally diverse audience and because it is simply morally right. Companies have as much responsibility as individuals when it comes to swimming against the discriminatory tide.
For me, the answer lies in targeted, short-term positive action programmes with a clear goal — and, as ever, a ruthless focus on defining and measuring outcomes and prioritising what works.