The Bad Penny Debates: Positive Discrimination

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On Thursday evening a photo appeared online appearing the show what would have been Andrea Leadsom’s policies with which she would have run for Conservative leader. One of these policies was: ‘Make positive discrimination explicitly illegal’, and it caused some disagreement amongst the Bad Penny Team. Andrea Leadsom has now dropped out and though the validity of the document can be questioned this remains an important debate. For this reason I collated responses from a few (more vocal) members of our team to allow our readers to see the arguments on both sides of the debate.


If we want gender equality and we want it soon then we need to have some element of positive discrimination to make up for the difficulties that women currently face. Ingrained implicit discrimination will take time to defeat, and as gender roles change there will need to be some positive action to benefit the current generation, even if these roles may be resolved for the next generation.

Common counter-arguments are that this is merely ‘cosmetic’, but it is not merely cosmetic for those who get particular jobs which they would otherwise find very difficult to get. Another counter-argument is that the women/ethnic minorities don’t want it because they know that they only have it due to positive action, but when positive action is used well it ensures that the most fully-qualified people are still being accepted, but it takes into account difficulties they face due to societal attitudes and the like. Also, these women/ethnic minorities very much appreciate the roles that they get, the usually don’t mind that this could be down to a positive action scheme. As for the sometimes derogatory attitude of others who treat those who benefit from positive action schemes, this attitude is not acceptable and these people should realise that positive action schemes are only being used because we will not achieve gender or racial equality for a very very long time without them.

We should seek to alleviate the factors that are causing gender and racial inequality, but if we want more equality now (and this will affect people’s lives positively) then we must accept some schemes of positive action. It is the right and just thing to do.


As someone firmly for equality and recognising the many obstacles that prevent it from being seen in certain areas of work, it may surprise you to know that I don’t support positive discrimination in all these areas. Parliamentary quotas and all women or ethnic minority shortlisting is damaging for one primary reason: it puts women, ethnic minorities, or other traditionally underrepresented groups, on a second tier and keeps them there. Many of those candidates, we hope, would have got their posts anyway, but the fact that an entire system of selection created to get more of a particular demographic, implies that they were worse than the over represented candidates, or that they are ‘tokens’. In less public areas of life, such as the appointment of company managers, the distribution of university places, or the recruitment people into the armed forces then quota action is not nearly as damaging and could be a good tool by which a company can draw on a bigger pool of talent. In the following paragraphs I will present the argument which compelled me to stand against just parliamentary quotas.

The potential pitfalls have been seen with female quotas in Germany where many parliamentarians that are women are now branded with derogatory terms and are considered less worthy of respect and power than their male counterparts who have not been given quotas. Although the logic is there, and it is statistically likely that with low numbers of specific groups you’re missing out on the talent they have to offer, the aim of such a public role should be used more sensibly than with a heavy handed ‘fix all’. Just shoehorning in more of those experiencing systematic discrimination that has lead them to a position of less uptake doesn’t solve the original issue, and just gives us an excuse to ignore it. Even for those who think ethnic minorities, women and other underrepresented groups are lacking in the Commons for other reasons and don’t think there’s a problem at all, I’m sure would rather have the argument than block it off with a superficial solution.

Parliament must be handled with sensitivity and is a different domain to a boardroom looking for some fresh faces, because what is at stake is our democracy. If people and political parties chose candidates then they must not have their selection altered so that they do chose the ‘right’ candidate, no matter whether or not we think it would be good to have more representation because it fundamentally undermines the system that they operate in. Other solutions must be exhausted before we undermine the candidates and their democracy for the sake of a quick fix. The promotion of role models who are already in parliament and who are members of groups that lack candidates, school training days and speakers who specifically target women or ethnic minorities, grants for studying particular subjects at degree level or taking training programs in parliamentary roles, better maternity or childcare facilities, and a clamp down on sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory behaviour are all options that must be explored very seriously before we take the measure of quotas.

So to sum up, quotas would get more women and ethnic minorities into our parliament, but they would do so without solving the problem at its core and at a grave cost to the quota-holding groups. The decision here is between superficial success, or real progress.


Positive discrimination aims to achieve greater diversity, usually in the workplace. The reality however, is that this policy leads to not less, but more division, and works contrary to the goal of creating a society in which race, gender or creed do not matter. Despite the good intentions of advocates of positive discrimination, trying to cut corners on social progression, which needs to be a natural process.

As an example, when men find it harder than women to get hired in STEM fields, despite not being less qualified, it not only alienates men, but demonstrates that gender still plays a part in the determination of people in society. The same can be said for race and religion. Gender is unique from race and religion however, because men and women, psychologically, tend to gravitate towards different carriers and lifestyles; gender quotas ignore this. If we are trying, as a society, to break down barriers between people, and base employment off one’s ability to do the job, we must avoid hypocritical measures which only hinder this progression.

Positive discrimination causes not only social tensions, but also economic problems. Not hiring based on merit can hinder the ability of the company to grow and succeed, which has a knock-on effect on the national economy, especially when this policy is universally followed. An extreme example of this is the action of the South African government after the end of the apartheid. People of colour were installed in important business positions through the use of quotas which resulted in new managers sitting in their office, not understanding the business, and being unable to take any active part in the company.

Instead of trying to force everyone to be the same, we should focus on providing equal opportunity, which involves giving everyone access to high quality education, regardless of factors that we cannot control. Positive discrimination is still discrimination, and is a step backwards towards achieving total equality.

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