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Can discrimination ever be positive?


The forthcoming Equalities Bill will give organisations the ability to discriminate in favour of women, disabled people and ethnic minorities in certain circumstances. The Labour Party's deputy leader Harriet Harman has called the Bill a 'catalyst for change'. Gemma Middleton raises her concerns that the proposals could increase the very divisions they aim to quell.

Positive discrimination has been a much debated topic for many years and it looks set to rise to the top of the business agenda again as the Equalities Bill returns to Parliament in the coming month. MPs are backing the move to allow ‘positive discrimination’ to be a legal and acceptable business practice, with one of the most prominent MPs being Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, who is throwing her full political weight behind the bill.

Harman believes that the bill will be a ‘catalyst for change’ as it will enable employers to positively discriminate in favour of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people depending on the circumstances. She believes the bill will help address issues surrounding male dominant employment cultures and the gender pay debacle.

The world’s history is peppered with strong inspirational individuals, fighting for fair and just treatment; I hope and believe that positive discrimination was not what they wanted.

Whilst I think it is important to address the distribution of top jobs to reflect our society and the pay differences between male and female counterparts, positive discrimination does not sit too comfortably with me. I strongly believe that jobs should be won on merit and not because candidates happen to be female, disabled or of an ethnic origin.

In fact, I foresee a lot of resentment occurring if organisations, no matter what size or industry start to bring positive discrimination into the workplace, thus causing more harm than good. After all every other equality bill has been promoting and enforcing the stance that it is wrong to discriminate, whether it be on the grounds of race, age, sex, disability, sexual orientation; the list goes on and on. Yet here is a bill encouraging discrimination, albeit with positive intention.

The world’s history is peppered with strong inspirational individuals, fighting for fair and just treatment; I hope and believe that positive discrimination was not what they wanted.

The issue of equality and diversity (E&D) is always going to be sensitive, whether the subject is surrounding new or existing parliamentary bills, E&D training or work place issues; most people will have either an opinion, experience of unjust treatment, or both.

Unfortunately, it appears that for us as a nation to truly accept and embrace equality and diversity the government and organisations alike are going to need to promote E&D training for a long time to come, so surely, addressing the attitudes that drive discrimination is the most sensible choice of action, instead of potentially causing greater resentment?

I must admit that when my company conducted E&D training, I initially approached it with a blasé attitude. I was brought up to treat people how I wish to be treated, which has stood me in good stead, and so I thought I would gain very little return from the training. However, I found the training interesting and extremely useful as it provided an arena for questions and debate about diversity topics, casting any myths away and leaving my colleagues and I with the real facts; not that impression created by the media.

The beauty of the human race is its diversity and individuality, no matter what ‘pigeon-hole’ people fall in to; we all have strengths and weaknesses and so should be judged on an individual basis. If this were the norm, then the need to discriminate, positively or negatively, would not exist. This is not only the most ethical outcome, but the best for business; just imagine how much money organisations would save on tribunal cases alone if discrimination of any sort did not exist?

Gemma Middleton is a marketing coordinator at Righttrack Consultancy.

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