“We can do better – a case for positive discrimination in the workplace”
By Colby Benari
Like many women, I started calling myself as a feminist in university. I started realising that sexual harassment is real even if others do not recognise that harassment happens. I started experiencing discrimination based on my gender and I became aware that I had also experienced it in the past. I became angry and motivated.
What surprised me the most was the fact that it took me so long to see the effects of structural sexism on my life. I became aware that I had routinely thought of myself as less capable than my male peers. I remember being scared to put my hand up in class and not really being sure why. When I got my first job I remember not putting myself forward for projects and letting male colleagues scoop up plum roles. It makes me sad to think of how I was held back by structural sexism that made me think less of myself.
I know that we can do better. We can value women equally to men and changes to the workplace are an important part of the solution.
Research confirms that women are routinely discriminated against during hiring, promotion and day-to-day workplace interactions. This isn’t ok and we need to be honest about it. Despite the evidence we often refer to hiring and promotion as being merit-based. Clearly capability is part of hiring and promotion decisions, but the evidence tells us that a woman’s capability is not viewed as well as a man’s.
We (feminists!) are working to change this, and now many workplaces have introduced anonymised applications and unconscious bias training before interview panels. However, we also know that without intervention, women will have equal standing in the workplace with men in over 200 years.
I am not willing to wait and neither should anyone who is committed to gender equality. We should be putting in place measures and new practices that genuinely level the playing field for women and accelerate the journey to gender equality.
Also, positive discrimination, and feminism in general, without inclusion isn’t good enough. We must acknowledge that race, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc all intersect with gender and compounds the discrimination that individuals experience. Inclusivity does not detract from the cause of feminism. I encourage you to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s fantastic book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”. She powerfully unpicks structural racism in the UK and intersectionality in a very frank and damning manner. I couldn’t put it down.
In order to achieve gender equality in the workplace I want to see more positive discrimination in the workplace to benefit women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. Measures such women-only shortlists would be a huge step toward increasing the number of women at high levels and would go a long way to eliminating the gender pay gap.
I know many women recoil at the idea of positive discrimination, and I get it. You don’t want to be a charity case. (You aren’t.) You want to be rewarded for your accomplishments and hard work in the same way as a man. (You really aren’t.)
If you don’t want to be treated differently from a man you have to accept that you are treated differently already. Gender equality in the workplace will only be achieved when we have more women in visible, senior roles. We will only achieve this in a reasonable timeframe if we acknowledge that structural sexism exists and needs to be countered proactively.
Would I apply for a role that is for women only? Yes absolutely. Would I have to deal with a certain amount of backchat in the workplace because of this? Probably, but I deal with plenty already. For me being a woman in a senior role and providing visibility for women early in their careers would be more important.