Positive discrimination just levels the playing field for talent

Companies that actively seek out perspectives that are under-represented will find that rather than compromising on talent they widen the pool.


At a recent event, a fellow guest (a so-called senior figure in our industry, god help us) asked me what I thought about novelist Lionel Shriver and her tirade about Penguin Random House’s pledge to publish books by more diverse authors. Before I was able to respond, he declared that she was completely right and in his humble opinion (yes he did actually utter those words) the problem with the drive for diversity was that “women and other minority groups” would always feel they had been appointed to make up the numbers rather than on merit.

I smiled, pointed out that women make up 51% of the population and told him I disagreed. “But surely you don’t want to be a quota?” he asked, looking puzzled. I was about to explain my position when we were called to take our seats. Deprived of my opportunity to elucidate in person, I decided I would set out my thoughts on quotas and positive discrimination.

I have to admit I have changed my position on this. When I started my career I naively thought that to get on all I had to do was work hard, be excellent, deliver more than what was expected of me and be better than my male colleagues (I said I was naïve, not stupid). I would have been mortified if I thought I had been appointed because of my gender or ethnic background.

But in spite of my hard work, I found that progression wasn’t guaranteed. Male colleagues would get opportunities and promotions which simply didn’t come my way. And then I realised there was positive discrimination, but it just wasn’t in favour of under-represented groups. You only have to look at the people at the top of most organisations in our industry. While the lower ranks are dominated by women, we disappear the higher you go.

There are lots of reasons why women fail to progress at the same rate as their male colleagues, but chance isn’t one of them. It also beggars belief that men of successive generations have just been more talented. I know that lots of women rule themselves out of the race to the top, leaving when they hit their 30s as they look up and don’t see many people like them. Why would they stay when it is evident that all the good jobs go to their male counterparts? And don’t get me started about the numbers of people of colour, disabled people or people from poor backgrounds who rarely make it through the front door in the first place.

Thinking about the make-up of your team at every level, actively seeking perspectives that are under-represented, will make your organisation stronger.

So now I say, let’s have quotas. Let’s have positive discrimination.

But, I hear you ask, what about the people who are appointed in this brave new world of quotas? How do we stop them feeling that they aren’t there on merit? I say people feel like that because the issue is always framed that way. If we see it as actively seeking talent, people might feel less uncomfortable. When I got one of the biggest jobs of my career, I overheard someone at my leaving party saying, “well of course she got the job, they need a black woman”. It stung.

I called my new boss asking him why he had appointed me; he was to-the-point: “I want you because you are the best person for the role. Does it help that you are a black women? Of course it does, it gives us a perspective we don’t have; but I don’t have the time and energy to have people in the team just for perspective, everyone has to be up to it.”

Not for the first time, he put the whole argument succinctly. Thinking about the make-up of your team at every level, actively seeking perspectives that are under-represented, will make your organisation stronger. It doesn’t mean you have to compromise on talent. In fact your talent pool will just expand. Massively.

Tanya Joseph is director of external relations at Nationwide and was the architect of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign.



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