Does positive discrimination work?


Positive discrimination, known as affirmative action is the process of increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups such as ethnic minorities, women or disabled people in workplaces from which they have been excluded, by preferentially selecting recruits with those characteristics.

Although many countries – including Rwanda allow the practice of positive discrimination, it remains illegal in some countries like UK under the Equality Act 2010, on the grounds that the process does not accord equal treatment to all races.

Some entities define positive action as measures taken to support the recruitment of underrepresented minorities “to redress past discriminations or to offset the disadvantages arising from existing attitudes, behaviors and structures”. 

Crucially, positive discrimination allows an employer to pick a candidate specifically on the basis of their protected characteristic, whereas a company can only evoke positive action when choosing who to hire or promote “if it is faced with two candidates who are ‘as qualified as’ each other.

Does positive discrimination work?

Diversity appears to be an important factor in business. According to research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are “more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians”.

The research also found that diverse companies “are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making”.

Yet diversity in the workplace continues to be held back by recruitment biases, reports Forbes, which says that employers “might have subconscious or stereotypical views of what a successful person looks like, which can affect how [one] compares and contrasts different candidates rather than assessing each on their own individual merit”.

But is positive discrimination the way to achieve diversity? In an article for The Guardian, civil service analyst Louise Maynard-Atem argues that positive discrimination “serves not only to lessen the sense of achievement for those on the right side of the coin, but also to foster resentment for those who aren’t part of the chosen minority”.

Meanwhile, recruitment site Launchpad asks whether positive discrimination might “increase the risk of hiring people who aren’t right fit for role” and “inadvertently perpetuate bias because there’s a belief that people are not selected on their skills, values and behaviors alone”.

Despite such fears, stalling recruitment and lagging career progression among communities has led a growing percentage of ethnic minority officers to believe that positive discrimination should be legalized.

Speaking at a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing earlier this week, National Black Police Association president Tola Munro told MPs that continuing failures of other initiatives meant positive discrimination was the only viable option left, policing news website Policing Professional reports.


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