Diversity quotas are a much-debated subject nowadays, since they are used to try to tackle the problem of workplace inequality. When an institution wants to make their workplace more equal, a diversity quota will tell them how many people of a certain sex/gender/race/ability/sexuality they should interview for an open position. They operate as a numerical measure of enforcing diversity, so an institution has to hire a certain amount of a certain type of person, otherwise they’ll be breaking their own policy. Since Frances McDormand mentioned “inclusion rider” in her historic Oscars speech, positive discrimination and diversity quotas have been even more hotly discussed. Amongst the discussion is a lot of confusion as to whether they even work, and who they’re helping.
The most common argument against the use of quotas is to do with merit, and that the use of a quota might mean that a less qualified candidate is hired simply because of the colour of their skin or their gender. It’s expressed as concern; that everyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied man might have got their job based on their lack of straight, white, able-bodied maleness rather than because of their ability. In short, positive discrimination can leave a person wondering if they got a seat at the table as the token commodity, or if it’s because they’ve actually got the credentials.
This kind of logic acts on the assumption that up until now, everything’s been based on merit and it’s the “snowflakes” who are trying to alter the balance. But it clearly hasn’t, otherwise we’d see many more different faces in group office pictures. And to address the concern about positive discrimination, it’s highly likely that the tokenistic candidate very much has the qualifications and deserves a seat at the table. In fact, countless studies have shown that an employer is far more likely to hire a less qualified man than a more qualified woman. For further evidence, see the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
It would be stupid of me to argue that the worry minorities have regarding tokenism is not a real worry; it is, very much so especially because so many people’s unconscious biases remain unaddressed. What I mean by this is that a lot of people never consider that their behaviour might be discriminatory because they haven’t done something overtly racist or sexist, but we all swallow a culture that breeds sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and classism. Discrimination is so set in place that we often don’t even realise it’s happening or has happened. Take Natalie Portman, for example, who didn’t realise she’d been experienced workplace misogyny until after the fact.
I think the worry from minorities with quotas is not necessarily a worry about qualifications, but about worthiness. Institutionally, those who are labelled minorities have been repeatedly told that they are not worth the money and resources to even be interviewed, never mind hired. It is unsurprising that so many minority groups deal with imposter syndrome – the constant doubting of your own accomplishments, and the worry that you’ll be exposed as a fraud.
Funnily enough, a successful white man never asks himself if he got where he did because of his whiteness and maleness; it’s presumed he just beat everyone else, even though his whiteness and maleness have been a tremendous leg-up. He never gets imposter syndrome, he never worries that he doesn’t deserve the pay he’s getting. Nepotism is never considered either, despite it being common knowledge that (especially in business and politics), who you know matters more than what you know. It’s strange that people hired in conjunction with a quota often worry if they’ve got this job because they tick more than one box, when the men are never wondering if their privilege has affected them, even though that’s the question we really need to be asking. Does anyone honestly think, for example, that Boris Johnson made foreign secretary on merit alone?
Whiteness and maleness act as a blank slate. They come with no suppositions or accusations other than an already gleaming reputation. As Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, that most of the opposition to diversity quotas is “inadvertently revealing what you think talent looks like.” Perhaps when we are filled with concern about merit, we need to not lay the blame with people who face discrimination, but with our own assumptions about what we think a talented individual looks and sounds like.
It is the responsibility of the people in power to make sure that there are equal opportunities, because a) that’s just the right thing to do, and b) it’s also good for business. Having a wide range of different cultures, sexualities, genders, and physical abilities in a workplace guarantees a diverse range of not just bodies but also ideas. It just makes sense to have different perspectives sat around a table, each with an opportunity to have their voice heard. Diversity quotas ensure the possibility of that.
We have oceans of qualified or willing-to-get-qualified people who just want a chance to do as well as their white and male counterparts but aren’t being given that chance, because of some rose-tinted idea of merit and what success “looks” like. When you’re saying, “can’t we just hire on merit?”, you’re saying “why can’t things stay the way they are?”
Positive discrimination and diversity quotas ensure that employers have a wider range of prospective employees to look at, so they’ll consider candidates they might not have considered previously. So, of course this means that more women, BAME, LGBTQ+ and disadvantaged people will get jobs that would’ve otherwise gone to straight white men. Perhaps diversity quotas may seem like a coercive attempt at enforcing diversity, but here’s the thing: they work. Diversity quotas are just transforming the status quo that’s been in place all this time.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s not enough to just allow different shades of people a seat at the table. Maybe we need to completely destroy the table and rebuild a new one that’s actually built to seat different people. Historically speaking, positions of power were not created by people who wanted equality. They were built to stay the same and to uphold the patriarchy. Therefore, I think it’s safe to conclude that any animosity towards diversity quotas is actually shining a light on the real problem; that if the minorities came together to form an overwhelming majority, these institutions of power could actually be overthrown or at least transformed into something less disastrously unethical. It’s not about getting one person a highly paid job, it’s about completely upending a traditionally unfair, unequal work atmosphere, and transforming it into something that’s not only inclusive, but transformative.
Written by Rochelle Asquith