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Louise Ripley

Gender Issues in Management
Affirmative Action

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scales of justice, peeking

One of the official government-sanctioned ways that we begin to alter the structures of power in organizations is by Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action may be done by gender or race, by ability, by sexual orientation, by any qualification which a government or corporation determines merits it (but rarely do we see it done by class). The point of Affirmative Action is to attempt to give an advantage in hiring to members of groups which were previously discriminated against because of their membership in those groups. In Canada, it is mandated for certain categories of employers to be done by four categories: women, visible minority, aboriginal, and disabled. 

Affirmative Action is a specific plan of action. It does not just mean hiring fairly. It means that a company agrees, and publicizes in its advertisements for hiring, that it will commit to hiring someone in one of these four categories over and above someone who is not in one of these four categories if the two candidates are essentially otherwise equally qualified. Affirmative Action does not mean hiring with targets or quotas.

One of the most interesting takes on Affirmative Action I experienced in a class for this course in Fall 2012. During the presentation of final projects, the group that talked about Affirmative Action provided a lively discussion for us. In the course of this discussion, several students had talked about how they don't like Affirmative Action, even as a member of one of the four groups, because people may think they got their job only because they were female/black/disabled/Aboriginal.

Sultan Ridwan, a student in the class, argued that the important thing about Affirmative Action is not so much what happens today as what will happen in a changed future. Yes, those in favoured groups may feel a little uncomfortable today, but in 5 or 10 years, new members of those groups will be hired into Units with people like them, and in maybe 30 years, it will be so common to find others "like us" that we won't need Affirmative Action.

I've taught this course for time measured in decades and I've served as an Affirmative Action representative on many York hiring committees, but I had never heard the argument for Affirmative Action put so well.

There are three major points that must be recognized about Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action seeks to right previous wrongs in hiring A white male losing out in a competition for a middle management job to a black female when they both have the same qualifications may indeed feel hard done by, but he must remember that black females have for centuries suffered from prejudicial hiring practices that prevented any of them having much of any opportunity to be hired for a managerial job, simply because they were black females. Hiring under Affirmative Action to right previous wrongs is NOT discrimination; it is the righting of previous wrongs. Many white men counter this with the complaint that it was not THEY who specifically denied black women jobs so why should they particularly suffer, by being denied a job. The point here is that any white male today has most likely benefited from a history of preferential hiring, in perhaps the job his father was able to obtain that enabled the son to attend a good school that was not available to blacks, and it is this systemic discrimination that Affirmative Action aims to rectify.

Affirmative Action NEVER requires an employer to hire an unqualified person for any job; it rarely requires an employer to hire a less qualified person and when it does the difference is minimal.  That myth about the  white man who now can't get a job because even though he holds a Ph.D. in business they gave the job to an unqualified black lesbian one-armed woman in a wheelchair with a Hispanic surname who never finished high school, is just that - a myth. Affirmative Action NEVER requires an employer to hire an unqualified person. Affirmative Action programmes generally say that if you have two candidates who are equally qualified, you must give preference to the one who belongs to whatever particular group is being singled out for attention.

In some cases where Affirmative Action is particularly needed to rectify previous hiring practices, it may be mandated that even if the black woman is slightly less qualified, you must hire her over the white male. Such an instance would include something where, for example, a white male had 4 years of experience and the black woman had 3, but all else was equal. 

Characteristics of a candidate that are not mentioned in the job posting are irrelevant in assessing equality of qualification. Let's examine again the story of the white man and the black woman in the wheelchair. Let's suppose the job they are applying for involves telemarketing and requires a grade 10 education and a good telephone voice. If the company doing the hiring has an Affirmative Action programme for females and blacks, and both the man and the woman have an acceptable voice, then the company would be not only within its rights but within its legal obligations to hire the black woman over the white man, even though the black woman had only a high school education and the white man has a Ph.D. The degree is not a requirement for the job, and cannot be used to justify hiring the white male. 

In the film The Chilly Climate, Glenda Simms, President of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, states,

"When people say 'reverse discrimination,' notice the emphasis. Reverse Discrimination. They have very little against discrimination, it is the reverse part, because they're saying, "I don't want you to do unto me what I have done unto you, because I know it hurts."

Men have held the power in corporations for so long, it is natural for them to resent programmes such as Affirmative Action which, in their minds, seem to just be "reverse discrimination." If you're worried about affirmative action giving all the jobs to women and minorities, just take a look at the inside page of each Monday's Globe and Mail Business section. I used to track it regularly. It shows a summary of all the announcements of promotions printed in the previous week in the G&M and there are usually only 13% or fewer women. A quarter century ago, the percentage of women in middle management in North America was around 15%. Now it's around 45% which isn't bad. But the percentage of women who make it to top management was 1% a quarter century ago, and now it's around 2%. Taking over the world through affirmative action? Not yet. Not yet.

In the mid 1990's, a guest speaker in the Women and Business class, a Vice President of the bank she worked for, told us of a study done by the Royal Bank, hardly a bastion of radical feminism, that estimated that if women were hired at the current rate into senior positions, without Affirmative Action, it would take approximately 400 years to establish equality between the sexes in senior management positions. There is a need for Affirmative Action.

waving hand Exercise
Affirmative Action
Find out whether the place where you work has an Affirmative Action hiring policy and report to the group on it. If you do not work, or if your place of work does not have an AA plan, find out about York's. How does an Affirmative Action plan help managers?
Post your answer in the Moodle  Discussion Group.

Sheryl Sandberg's Book Lean In

waving hand Exercise
Sandberg Affirmative Action
How does Sheryl Sandbert's book Lean In help you further understand the issue of affirmative action?
Post your answer in the Moodle  Discussion Group.
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AP/ADMS/WMST3120 3.0 Gender Issues in Management
York University, Toronto
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.