Quotas are necessary to address workplace diversity

As a single income family dependent on the income of an Asian-Australian female, and having two sons of obvious Asian-Australian descent, workplace diversity is an issue close to our hearts and it directly affects our security on many levels.

For anybody wishing to authentically open their eyes to the challenges minorities face in their careers and in day to day life in Australia, then I can suggest no better reading than “The Golden Country: Australia’s changing identity” by Tim Watts and it should be your first point of call.

Its importance to our family does not mean, however, that my wife and I agree on how workplace diversity in Australia should be addressed.

My wife is not supportive of quotas; she has concerns for workplace cohesion with the best person for the job not necessarily being selected, and she identifies with the disappointment of being overlooked when management has chosen a lesser suited female and she has assumed, based also on prior placements, that management did so as that female had become “a quota filler” in the organisation. (I have seen some writers elsewhere, such as Medium.com, use the term “tokens” but when applied to the entire female gender I would suggest my term is more appropriate.)

I see it as a rather simple mathematical concept. If throughout career lifetimes groups of people and minorities are prejudiced against which slows their progression, from the commencement of their career or from a certain level, then it is entirely logical that the higher the position level the larger the relative pool of individuals who have not been held back by prejudice from which to choose (see diagram below). 

Figure 1 provides a concept of the level of positions within a profession with the very broad base being the lowest level positions and the peak being the very highest positions that can be attained. Many people hope to progress right from bottom to the peak but as one climbs the fewer the number of more senior positions available relative to their current level. There are, after all, only so many Chief Executive Officer roles!

Figure 1: Positions within a profession.

So in a perfectly functioning meritocracy Figure 1 would relate to all individuals within the profession and how far one progresses upwards would depend on our intelligence, in all of its forms, and our effort. But we know from the data that we are not working within a meritocracy and groups of individuals are being prejudiced against by people within professions and workplaces due to conscious and sub-conscious biases.

Consequently, while the population average conforms to Figure 1, in reality various subgroupings of people are experiencing conditions quite different to the average, with some experiencing conditions more favourable for career progression while others are experiencing conditions less favourable for progression.

Examples of these difference are represented in Figure 2, where 2A represents a group that has experienced conditions more favourable than average for career progression while 2B represents a group that has experienced conditions less favourable for career progression right from the outset of their careers. Notice that for each level above the base level there are fewer people in Figure 2B which further reinforces the trend, i.e. amplifies the biases, such that the higher the level the significantly smaller proportions of individuals in the unfavoured subgrouping.

Figure 2A: Positions held by favoured subgrouping.

Figure 2B: Positions held by unfavoured subgrouping.

For interest I have also included Figure 2C which represents a situation where a subgroup experiences average career progression conditions to a point after which biases begin to affect career progression. This might represent women approaching prime to late child-baring age, or it could represent a group of people (perhaps an ethnicity) biased against where the dominant (favoured) subgroup promotes a view that minority groups, while good at process functions, are not good at higher level tasks and/or creative thinking.

Figure 2C: Positions held by subgrouping receiving average conditions for career progression early but then unfavourable at a point in time.

Of course, many will be subjected to several prejudicial biases.

The simple reality is that because subgroupings of people have been subjected to prejudice through their careers, perhaps from the very outset, then the pool of individuals available to choose from for higher level positions will be significantly smaller than the pool of individuals which have enjoyed favour. That will be true in absolute numbers but will be especially significant when dealing with minorities due to their lower representation in the entire workforce.

Thus there is no way to avoid the reality that if these biases and consequent prejudices are to be eliminated from corporate structures, it is going to be the case that some times an applicant from the unfavoured group with less experience will be given a chance to prove themself in a position above someone from the favoured group with more experience. After all, some of that extra experience was gained at the expense of other individuals who did not really have equal opportunity.

What is important is that when somebody is chosen to correct diversity that that person is authentic and of a high calibre, and is not necessarily somebody who shares more in common with the favoured group rather than the unfavoured group. When this occurs it is the most destructive for workplace cohesion because everybody understands that it is purely done to fill a quote and nobody respects the decision. In fact, it is such a poor decision as to suggest deliberate sabotage of the intention of the whole exercise, and may well be done as a conscious or subconscious attempt to undermine it and thus retard the process and prolong the status quo.

Also critical is that Business leaders show genuine leadership on this issue and guide organisations so that everyone understands the necessity for the imbalance to be rectified. In this respect Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, has been a shining light for one subgrouping of individuals and deserves congratulations.

At their AGM in October 2019 Alan Joyce was asked from the floor why Qantas had not done a better job of promoting diversity. He responded that he felt that they had done very well on diversity having a gay man and 4 women on the board.

For someone who is so passionate about discrimination and prejudice, it is a real shame that he seems not to appreciate or care about other forms of it. 

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2019

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