Affirmative Action

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Periodically I hear people complaining about affirmative action programs — generally white men who feel they have been cheated, though sometimes I’ve heard similar things from conservatives of all colours and genders. It’s not fair, it puts unqualified people into jobs because of their race or gender or, more subtly, it doesn’t lead to the most qualified person getting the job.

I’ve been involved in affirmative action programs for 30 years (I helped draft the second iteration of the policy for the Government of the NWT), so I sense this is one of those arguments that is immune to contradiction or evidence. But I’ll try anyway.

Let’s start with why we need these kinds of initiatives. Quite apart from the long standing bias towards white men in our society (they had the vote, could own property, ran the military before any other race or gender had access to these privileges), there are many people who don’t perceive the affirmative action program for white men that has been running for generations. White male bosses see themselves in their new hires — not surprisingly they hire people who look like themselves.

I’ve worked beside white men who were in no way qualified for the job they were doing but were constantly cut slack because they were a good guy or the primary breadwinner. So affirmative action is required to right the balance. It’s a long slow process — you don’t fix a system it took centuries to build in a few years.

In part we can see this as a battle between instinctual behavior and rational behavior. The former encourages us to maintain the status quo and go with what ‘feels’ right — that is we model the future on the past and are uncomfortable with change. Reason lets us examine the evidence and come to conclusions like — discrimination is not only unfair it is unproductive and inefficient. Society would be better off if everyone had the same chance.

In order to overcome decades of discrimination, sometimes the same chance means giving jobs to people based on their meta-qualifications rather than to those that can be written on paper.

Affirmative action in government is designed to make sure the public service reflects the population it serves. Roughly 50% of all jobs in all levels of the service should be qualified women (and 50% should be men). Similarly, in Canada, 15 % should be qualified visible minorities, some of whom should be specifically aboriginal. These are not ‘quotas,’ they are demographics.

Does that mean white men can never get jobs in government? In fact, in many Federal departments and most categories of jobs, affirmative action no longer includes a gender component because it has already achieved the goal of gender parity.

All jobs have core qualifications; you can’t apply if you don’t have them. Other things may be desirable but no one wants to hire someone with too many extras (why are they applying for such a low level job? Will they stay or will we have to run another expensive competition in six months?) Everyone has to pass the written exam —to get to the interview. Then they have to pass the interview — which is graded on specific requirements. Only once you have qualified does affirmative action come into play. And even then it is no sure thing— managers can always apply the personal suitability factor. And nobody really knows what that means.

But that’s ten minutes (more or less).

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