Is Positive Discrimination Really That Positive?

Ana Kociolkowska Ana Kociolkowska 7th Mar 2017

“You know the only reason you’re on this course is because you’re a girl, right?”

That was the first thing one of the (many) male students on my Electrical & Electronic Engineering course told me after one of our first lectures. Although his conversation-opening skills left much to be desired [enter joke about engineering chat up lines here], I wasn’t really surprised by what he’d said. Being completely honest, the thought had crossed my own mind before.

But why would that be? I’d gone through exactly the same application process as every other student on my course, slaved over the dreaded personal statement, worked hard at school and achieved the grades I’d needed to. So why did I feel, even for one second, that I wasn’t as deserving of a place at university as my male counterparts?

A few years beforehand in 2003, several UK universities, including the University of Bristol, had become embroiled in a row over alleged discriminatory admissions practices. Although the debate was not restricted to discrimination based on gender, the idea that higher education institutions were supposedly selecting candidates based on anything other than academic merit worried me.

As a female applying for engineering, I knew that I was in the minority. Engineering was, and still is, a male-dominated industry. This is changing, slowly, perhaps in part thanks to public campaigns specifically encouraging girls to consider the subject. For me, however, the scale and exclusivity of these campaigns and initiatives actually ended up having more of a negative effect on my decision-making. I didn’t want special treatment, just because I was a girl looking to study engineering. I didn’t want to feel as though I had been given a free pass, just to bump up the female to male ratio. I didn’t want to feel that I had an unfair advantage. But that’s exactly how I did end up feeling.

Fast-forward to that first lecture, and I’d had my thoughts verbalised by a male student. Don’t worry, I didn’t agree with him (and I didn’t let him off easily either), but can you blame him for bringing it up? It got me thinking: is positive discrimination the right way to bring diversity and equality into the workplace for women?

Before we get any further, let’s clear a few things up. Technically speaking, positive discrimination, where an individual from a disadvantaged or under-represented group is given preferential treatment in the recruitment process, regardless of their aptitude to do the job, is illegal in the UK. Positive action (or affirmative action in the US), however, as described in the UK’s Equality Act 2010, says that “employers can, in some situations, take steps to help certain disadvantaged groups access employment or training”.

No, I can’t really tell the difference either.

The key point to note here is that employers can choose to hire candidates from said disadvantaged groups, provided that they are as qualified for the role as other applicants. Sounds simple on paper, but in reality, no situation is as clear cut as that, so how is it possible to determine whether you are practicing positive action or positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination, or action, or whatever else you decide to call it, is fundamentally flawed. At the end of the day, it still relies on discriminating against one group to include another. How can you expect to resolve an issue with the same act that created the issue in the first place? Not only does it actively encourage the sort of behaviour that you are trying to eradicate, but it also feeds resentment towards the very groups that you are trying to include.  This inevitably leads to a further, if not deepened, sense of division. It’s a vicious circle that will always bring us back to where we started, because positive discrimination only acknowledges the issue (inequality), and fails to address the cause.

For employers, it opens a can of worms in hiring the right person for the job, because it becomes impossible to determine who is even allowed to be the right person for the job. For women, it taints the sense of achievement or merit for getting the job itself. There is a danger that it will develop a common mentality that academic merit will only get you part of the way; the rest is up to whether you fulfil an advisable, if not official, quota. It clouds and confuses the bounds of unbiased thinking, because you are always second-guessing whether the right decision is the acceptable one.

But what about the disproportionate ratio of women to men in corporate boards, I hear you cry? Surely the fact that women only hold 12 percent of seats on boards worldwide, with only 4 percent chairing them is enough to slap positive action targets on all corporates, with immediate effect?

Once again, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree. Granted, there are fewer females leading in corporate companies across the globe, and while I do feel that more gender-balanced executive boards are a good thing, putting pressure on Fortune 500 companies (and others) to simply hire or accelerate more women into these positions isn’t right. Why? As I mentioned before, we won’t be addressing the real cause of this biased ratio. What’s the cause? Maybe it’s simply that there aren’t enough women to select from to fill these positions.

Hear me out – even thirty years ago, you’d struggle to find many females in corporate managerial positions, let alone on boards. That’s because women were still breaking the mould, just starting to work full time, alongside men. Men, on the other hand, had been working in these companies and roles for decades; it was what they did, it was what they knew. It has taken a while for it to become the accepted norm for women to pursue the same careers as men, and for the jobs that belonged to men historically to be shared by women. I honestly believe that what we really need is to have a little patience (apologies in advance for getting Take That stuck in your head).

Time has already seen women starting to enter and succeed in new careers, and time will continue to equip women with the same experience levels as men. Then, in theory, there will be an equal pool of men and women to choose from to fill these senior board roles. All this, achieved without positive discrimination or action, just hard work and merit.

Positive discrimination for women at the expense of men will not achieve equality, it will divide us further, both now and in the long run. It doesn’t promote equality; in fact, it promotes the exact opposite. As a woman, I want to be treated equally, of course, but I don’t want to be treated separately; there is a difference. Equality is about equal opportunities, not equal results. I know that having patience and accepting that we need more time for women to filter through to corporate management is not easy to practice or preach. But, as the late Suzanna Bianchi, a renowned sociologist, once said, “What happened on the road to gender equality? A lot of work happened.”



  • Emma

    Posted on March 7th 2017 at 10:48am

    Such an interesting piece Ana. What’s also interesting is looking at this from the other perspective – how long is it going to take for more men to start splitting maternity leave (shared parental leave) with women as they’re now entitled to? Something tells me that is going to take a long time to be embedded and normalised in working life! We really need more men to want to/be supported to share parental responsibility during the babies first year with their female partners in order for women to have more opportunity to get to management/board level if they want to.


  • Linda Thompson

    Posted on March 8th 2017 at 3:06am

    Whoa -what a breath of fresh air! The victim card has gotten so tiresome and I believe it actually denigrates the progress already achieved. It takes authentic courage to say “c’mon girls, let’s do this”.


  • Anastazja Kociolkowska

    Anastazja Kociolkowska

    Posted on March 14th 2017 at 7:21am

    Thanks, Emma! I completely agree with you – shared parental leave will play a crucial role in establishing true equality in the workplace (this is something I wanted to cover here, but my blog had already turned into more of an essay!). As you say, even though some businesses are beginning to offer shared parental leave, it is not seen as ‘normal’. So even if men want to take the leave they are entitled to, they aren’t taking it, because it isn’t the ‘done thing’, and they aren’t used to the idea of putting their careers on hold. I think companies have a huge role to play in turning this around; they need to adjust their working cultures appropriately and gain employees’ confidence that shared parental leave will not be damaging to their careers. Flexible working has become a part of global working culture, and we all managed to adapt; this is the next step. The more men and women sharing parental leave, the better!


  • Anastazja Kociolkowska

    Anastazja Kociolkowska

    Posted on March 14th 2017 at 7:30am

    Thank you, Linda! I’m glad you agree; it’s a very delicate topic to address, so it’s reassuring to hear that my point (that we can’t rely on special treatment forever) is coming across. Another thing that I didn’t mention above, that I really believe in, is how important it is to educate children to grow up seeing and believing that boys and girls can do everything and anything that they want to. That comes from the home, and from school. If they grow up in an environment that doesn’t direct their futures based on old stereotypes (I’m talking about boys realising that they can be nurses too, not just girls realising they can be engineers!), they won’t bring it with them to the workplace. Equality is not something that can be solved by one initiative, or one train of thought. It’s a mentality!


  • Giles

    Posted on May 14th 2017 at 11:32am

    Brilliant article, and yes, such a shame that this is happening. I work about this to a few companies.

    — My post

    I’m going to start by saying something probably very controversial.
    “It is completely wrong to promote any group of people whether majority or minority, or to try and meet ‘equality targets’. What we are experiencing today is what can only be described as global and openly promoted positive discrimination”.
    And it doesn’t take long to experience examples of why this is wrong
    I recently finished a masters in petroleum engineering. I met a number of very good friends. One of these friends was a girl who I can only describe as ‘absolutely exceptional’. She did an undergrad at Imperial in Petroleum Geophysics, did the Masters of petroleum engineering on my course, and over the years of summer breaks accrued a year of experience in some top engineering companies. On top of this, she excelled in everything she did, and she is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
    Whilst applying for jobs, she quite rightly got multiple job offers, one of which was from a top supermajor. I know it’s only an opinion, but this supermajor I feel is one of the worst for positive discrimination. Looking at their careers page on facebook most of the people featured are women and they are proud of their 47% female graduate employment, whilst ignoring the fact a much smaller proportion applying are female. Talking to my friend, a classmate over heard and said “well, you got the offer because you’re a girl”. Initially my thoughts were “how dare you suggest that, she fully deserves this”. Then a short while later I thought “well, can you blame him for thinking this?” Of course, what he said was wrong, and I don’t deny that, but why he thought it in the first place, is based on his experience of being discriminated against for being male, for not being someone who helps with a company’s 47%. He knew this was happening, I knew this, and my class knew this.

    It isn’t just confined to petroleum engineering. My first degree was in structural engineering, where I had another good friend. She initially applied for another course but didn’t get in, when following up her second choice of structural engineering she was told “technically we are full this year, but we haven’t met our quota for females year so we can give you a place”.

    A previous girlfriend graduated from petroleum geology and she was openly said “it’s easier for me to get job interviews compared to my male friends as companies have targets for female employment”.

    Now I could go on with more examples, and how I feel. . . I won’t. Instead I’ll summarise, as I think there will be 3 types of people reading this:
    The first group of people are probably thinking “what a male schovanistic pig, how dare he suggest that women shouldn’t have an equal chance for applying for jobs”. If you’re thinking this, then you have completely misinterpreted what I’ve said so far. I think it is completely wrong what happened in the past with majority groups having an advantage in the same way I think it’s wrong that minority groups now have an advantage.

    The second group of people know this is happening, but they choose to stay quiet. Whether this is because, like my friend, they have got the university place that they wanted (ignoring the fact that an equally qualified person has missed out because just because they didn’t meet their diversity targets), or they know they have more chance of getting that crucial interview after university. They also might be choosing to stay quiet because they’re in a majority group but they’re just too scared to stand up in a room full of people or speak out and say “this is just wrong, how dare you give someone an advantage purely based on the fact they’re a minority group”. Because it’s a lot more difficult to say “this is wrong” when you’re part of a majority, than saying its wrong when you’re a minority.
    The third group of people I really want this to hit home with. These are the people behind the diversity marketing, the people setting their 47percents, the people who don’t know what is really happening. I say to these people, “I promise you, you do not know the damage you’re causing, not just to young people who have missed out on a place because they haven’t met your diversity criteria, but ironically, the damage you’re causing to potentially exceptional minority graduates, like my friend, who now has to flight a prejudice to show they genuinely did deserve a place rather than meeting arbitrary targets. And this prejudice is unfortunately based upon a truth of positive discrimination which is being openly promoted.

    It’s all very well talking about problems without solutions. But I’ll finish by saying I think the solution is simple. We need to stop promoting any group of people. We need to base decisions on who they are as a person. Surely, that’s not too much to ask? And it’s probably not what some would like to hear, but we can’t feel proud of our 47 percents if we’ve used discrimination to get there. Yes, a lot of the things companies do are very good at promoting STEM subjects at a pre-university level, and this is the Only place they should promote it, letting the ratios naturally filter through to the graduates which apply to their schemes without having to worrying about targets.

    Gender, background, race, religion should Never play a part in deciding who to hire. It should never matter if you want to employ a female, a black person, a religious person, gay, straight. . . . and dare I say it. . . . . It should never matter if you want to employ a young, white, male.


  • Giles

    Posted on May 14th 2017 at 11:33am

    I wrote* , opps


  • Alex

    Posted on November 25th 2018 at 6:11am

    This is 100% the case and its completely moronic.

    I have no doubt that women can perform as well or better than men in these roles, but imo the reason there is a lot less of them is simply their interest in the job. Most women are simply not interested in doing engineering. Now, this could be partly intrinsic, such as the effect of oestrogen on thought processes and the structures of reward pathways. Alternatively, it could be entirely cultural with society encouraging women to behave in a classically feminine way. However, there’s one thing it isn’t at all – a problem.

    It IS a problem if people refuse them this role. It IS a problem if they treat them differently. But it is NOT a problem if a group of people just aren’t interested in doing a particular role. To promote a change in the distribution in a macro-economic sense based upon nothing but gender is extremely arbitrary and shows extreme lack of self-reflection and self-awareness in the decision making process. There was no stage where these people took a step back and asked themselves WHY do I want to achieve this. Why is a 50% representation of women in this career conceptually linked to “good”. Because it makes you feel like you’re not biased in your hiring? Or perhaps its to externally appear like you hire fairly to outside entities. In truth, all that really takes is some effective communication about the distribution of people applying for the job and that issue is gone.

    People who are encouraging the proliferation of any gender through any job role are people who only see the surface and have little appreciation of the unseen forces at play in a economy – exactly the type of people who should NOT be influencing macro-economics.

    If you aren’t hiring upon merit, then you’re guaranting yourself less capable employees, and that is not due to gender but due to incompetent decision making. If you’re a woman who loves engineering and stamps out her presence in the field despite being surrounded by people who are different, good on you, you already naturally stand out for your strength. However when you’re standing in the job line with everyone else your attitude is only part of the battle, and that alone does not make you special.


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