The world has achieved broad agreement in the target of overcoming discrimination against certain groups. Meanwhile, most states across the globe have established equal rights of genders, and hardly anybody questions this development.
Despite this positive legal development, discriminatory treatment can still be observed on a large scale, and there is substantial disagreement about the necessary steps to improve this situation.
EQUAL TREATMENT OF WOMEN AND MEN
Discrimination against women had been accepted by most societies for thousands of years, until deep into the age of industrialisation. Thank goodness, this has started to change. First people began to realise that women being different doesn’t mean their value is lower. Then it became apparent that, on average, the different strengths of women and men complement each other well in the workplace.
But how do societies react? Many states and organisations have committed to addressing the challenge. Now they seem to outdo each other in their attempts at overcoming discrimination against women.
Female quotas have become the most common approach: Public and private organisations voluntarily submit to rules that ask for a minimum percentage of women at certain management levels or amongst the members of committees and decision bodies. I believe that this approach is doomed to fail. It does not lead to non-discriminative treatment of people of either gender. Its problematic idea is to discriminate against men to compensate for prevalent discrimination against women, hoping for a balanced outcome. As it addresses the symptoms instead of the root cause, it cannot succeed in the long run.
Look at the following analogy in gardening: Assume you have two sets of plants (let’s call them “men” and “women”), and you want them to have the same size. If the set of plants called “men” grows faster than the other one, you can, of course, cut those faster-growing plants until you reach equal sizes. This obviously is not a sustainable approach as you are reducing overall growth potential.
Addressing the root causes (in the literal sense of the word!) would mean assessing the soil around those plants called “women” and, where necessary, improving or fertilising the ground. As a result, you will no longer require “equal growth” regulations, and you will not have to penalise faster growth.
To systematically avoid gender discrimination, the sex of a person should be entirely disregarded unless biologically justified (of course, it doesn’t make sense to search for a “surrogate mother – male or female”). Instead, you would look for the desired attributes and capabilities. The recruitment activities of organisations, for instance, should aim at adding all desired or required qualities and characteristics to a team to a sufficient degree, instead of trying to find the “best candidates”. As a result, the fact that a candidate is “yet another man (or woman)” doesn’t matter – while the finding that we, for instance, should add a fifth analytic person while lacking an empathic person would lead to an unfavourable decision.
As soon as an organisation shifts towards this approach, it will recognise the following: The typical differences between men and women and their complementary natures almost inevitably lead to mixed-gender teams.
Note that, while there is a correlation between gender and attributes, there is no strict dependency. That is why it is possible to end up with a team that has a well-balanced mix of desired characteristics while still consisting of men or of women only. Such team compositions are acceptable from an organisation’s perspective. Even more, any enforced change aiming at a mix of genders would worsen the quality of the team as, by definition, this mixed team would otherwise already have been formed before, based on the assumed quality-based selection criteria.
That is why, in my opinion, any female (or male) quota should be avoided, as it prevents a fact-based, quality-oriented selection of candidates that leads to discrimination.
Interestingly, many successful businesswomen refuse a female quota as it easily leads to the suspicion that women in leadership positions got there for gender equality reasons and not as a result of her performance.
An organisation will get better in selecting the best candidates if decision-makers and owners of organisations understand that such performance-independent selection criteria for employees generally diminish the value of the organisation and ultimately harm shareholders. As soon as they know that gender bias reduces the effectiveness of the organisation, most people would ideally accept gender inequality.
We can conclude that it should not be an organisation’s primary target to have the distribution of the overall population reflected by its own workforce. If, however, optimal performance of teams is a declared selection criterion, a balanced blend of people of both genders will usually be a positive side effect.
NATIONALITY OR COLOUR OF SKIN
The situation is slightly different if we look at genuinely neutral attributes such as a person’s skin colour or nationality. There is no direct correlation at all (let alone causality) between those attributes and desired characteristics of employees. As a consequence, individual attributes such as a person’s body size or the colour of skin or hair are entirely irrelevant in this context.
We can observe indirect correlation at times, though. Let’s look at the correlation between body size and education within a group of Dutch people and pygmies: The former may have a better education on average, and they are certainly taller. This, however, does not imply causality at all: An increase in body size does not improve your education.
Yet, selecting from this group for an office job, strictly following the education criterion would lead to an increased selection of Dutch people. These people are obviously not better suited for the job because they are Dutch. A pygmy who grew up and was socialised in The Netherlands would, on average, have the same educational level as the average Dutch person.
No matter how you look at it, the selection of new employees should solely be based on a person’s value for the organisation. Any other individual attribute needs to be neglected. Otherwise, the entire process would open up to personal bias, without being able to determine whether that bias has a positive impact.
But hasn’t this statement already become common sense?
It certainly has – but people are often not aware of what’s going on subconsciously.
There is a tendency, even in today’s day and age for human beings to prefer people that belong to the same “group” over other people. Male bosses still prefer male employees, just as female bosses prefer female employees – without necessarily being aware of this tendency. People even tend to prefer other people with the same dialect or home town. This natural behaviour, if not acted upon, manifests existing imbalances as it may result in inequality.
A frequent trap in such situations is a misleading feeling of belonging to a group. While it makes sense in the case of voluntarily joined groups (“WE as advocates of the slow-food culture…”, “WE as environmentalists…”), it creates a fatal sense of loyalty if applied to inherited group belongings: “WE as men…”/“WE as women…” or “WE as Caucasians…”/“WE as Afro-Americans…”.
None of this behaviour is based on evil intent. It is usually based on subconscious bias. That is why the optimal selection of employees is only possible if personal bias is avoided consciously. This doesn’t happen automatically, even where an interviewer rationally agrees with all principles of fair treatment.
In concrete terms, we need to actively remove any “group” affiliation (such as gender, origin or colour of skin) from our list of selection criteria.
It is an excellent first step to distinguish between the group (e.g. “men” or “women”) and attributes proven to be typical for such a group. As a second step, you’d distinguish between those attributes you’d like to see across the team (such as honesty or diligence) and those you’d like to see accompanied by complementing attributes (e.g. spontaneity versus thoughtfulness). In any group, be it a team or a decision body, you’d want to see a high number of the former and high variability of the latter.
A mature society will generally consider voluntarily selected (or accepted) group affiliation more relevant than inherited group membership.
Take, as an example, the case of a policeman shooting someone fleeing from the scene of a crime. The right reaction may be neither (as we frequently observe in the US) to ask for the skin colour of both the policeman and the victim (suspecting a “white-shoots-black” pattern) nor (as it would be typical for Germany) to consider any question regarding group affiliation an act of racism.
It may make sense, instead, to ask for possible causalities based on affiliation with social groups. You would detach an observed behaviour from an inherited belonging to a group (such as the skin colour or the nationality). This would open your eyes to the impact of social, cultural or religious milieus.
If a problematic milieu correlated indeed with a nationality, your approach would not lead to any accusation of that nationality – you would criticise the milieu instead, and rightfully so. As a consequence, any corrective measures could be directed towards the milieu, not towards the correlated nationality.
It is vital in such a case to explicitly refer to the milieu in all words and deeds. You would, for instance, explicitly accuse someone of being a member of a specific problematic milieu (as far as there is a real choice of membership), not of that member’s nationality.
This approach helps prevent the (almost inevitable) accusation of discrimination in case of a strong correlation between that milieu (with voluntary membership) and a usually inherited group membership (such as a person’s nationality).
Just as any kind of discrimination based on inherited group affiliation is to be refused, you would want to avoid undue preference. Instead, you may wish to focus strictly on relevant individual attributes and on groups that people have a choice to join or leave.
In doing so, you will not only achieve better results but also deal more justly.