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Why there is no such thing as ‘Positive’ Discrimination

It remains a hot topic and there continues to be an increasing amount of publicity lately around ‘Women on boards’ but what is the reality and is positive discrimination a good thing for the employer and/or women?

Lord Davies’ report deadline of 25% of directorships to be held by women in the FTSE 100 by 2015 fast approaches. While the sentiment of the report is justified and the 2011 rate of change needed to be accelerated (it was predicted at the time that it would have taken over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK) the approach to reach a certain quota by a certain time is not. As addressed in the report itself, rather than hold companies accountable to reach certain percentages, the focus has to be on the reasons why the majority of women find it so difficult to reach more senior positions. I would suggest that these reasons must be tackled and examined, as any form of positive discrimination is neither positive for the work place nor for the individuals involved.

Individual self-esteem

The self-esteem of any individual is likely to be compromised and they may suffer from self-doubt if there is any suspicion that a promotion or an offer of employment has been influenced because of gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Most people want to be rewarded on their own merits, previous experience and unique skill sets and wouldn’t consider it acceptable that they were being ‘fast tracked’ for any other reason. It may also be very difficult for individuals to gain respect from their staff and colleagues if they believe that person has been hired for the role to reach a quota driven by positive discrimination.

To assume….

I wholeheartedly agree with Lord Davies’ comment that ‘Corporate boards perform better when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds’ but there is a danger of making appointment decisions to boards based on assumption. By assuming a board may act differently if there are a certain number of females on it is far too simplistic approach. The overall requirement of a board in terms of skill set needs to be assessed and any apparent skill gaps need to be filled by individuals who possess the required attributes irrespective of gender.


The gap most women take in their career to raise a family is by far the biggest barrier to their being promoted into increasingly senior positions. As stated in our previous blog ‘Gender Equality in the Workplace’ the fact that 69% of executive workers are female compared to 40% at department head level and 24% of Chief Executives, according to a recent study by the Chartered Management institute, the suggestion is that having children during a woman’s working life is still a major obstacle to their ability to progress and achieve equality in pay.
The only way to solve this issue is for more flexible working and for more employers to introduce ways to allow parents more options when deciding how they are going to raise a family. To give couples the flexibility to allow them to either equally spend time raising children or for fathers to do the lion’s share of the child care will allow for more women to have the option to concentrate on their career and climb the corporate ladder.

Old boys’ club

Research results published in the ‘Women on boards’ report suggest that half of directors are recruited through personal friendships and contacts, which at this moment in time are more likely to be male. Only 4% have a formal interview and only 1% obtain the role through answering an advertisement. As stated, more detailed analysis of the skills needed to make up a high performing board needs to be completed and the appropriate executive searches and interview processes need to be introduced to ensure that any gaps are sufficiently filled.

The future is encouraging

There have been many positive new stories recently than suggest diversity in the workplace is improving as women now account for 20.7% of board members in the FTSE 100 firms. This figure is up from 12.5% in 2011, as reported by the BBC in March and all of Britain’s leading manufacturers now have at least one female director on their board according to the BFF.
There have also been positive steps in terms of legislation, giving couples more choice regarding the distribution of parental leave. The signs are positive and there will be a snowball effect. As more women reach senior positions they will in turn become role models for other women. However, this needs to be achieved through a change in working practices rather than through any form of positive discrimination.

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