Employment Equity is a Dirty Term

We think of it as being a form of reverse sexism inflicted on innocent, hard-working men whose only crime was to be born a man. And the fact that women are being penalized for being women at a tremendous scale is oft unuttered. It’s as if the objectives of these policies have been forgotten- as if they are purposeless and unnecessary.

This is not an abstruse idea. For instance, take the example of the Employment Equity Act which was implemented in order to improve conditions for individuals receiving an unfair disadvantage within the federal employee system:

The purpose of the EEA is to ensure that no person is denied employment opportunities and benefits for reasons unrelated to ability. It requires employers to correct disadvantages in the workplace experienced by members of the four designated groups:
Aboriginal peoples;
persons with disabilities; and
visible minorities.
In addition, employers must implement the principle that employment equity means more than treating people in the same way; it also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences.[1]

Quotas and regulations such as this may convey the impression that they are discriminatory towards the able-bodied, white male who believes that he can do a comparable or even better job than the visible minority woman who was given preferential treatment based on her class. In doing so, he ignores the years of bias that have taken a toll on the latter individual. We forget than the man was brought up with an advantage that he was given when he was born. We should take the time to make him aware of this. We need to have a discussion about why employment equity exists.

The dialogue began with an article written by a friend of mine in the newspaper that decried employment discrimination and described her personal experiences dealing with the issue. This prompted a response from another reader asserting that, due to the uptake of affirmative action, men are at a disadvantage now. I duly responded with my own take on the socioeconomic position of women today and resolved that despite affirmative action policies, women are inadvertently challenged with inequitable circumstances in the workplace.

I believe that a conversation regarding the importance of affirmative action needs to be had. We are long past the days when women’s liberation was soundly understood by most; the objectives being endorsed by people of all walks of life. Today, feminism is constantly confused and warped within various forms of media which is why it should be explained and made accessible to the greater public.

A male friend asked me what my conception of feminism looked like. He had been hearing messages about the subject leading up to International Women’s Day and after some soul searching, I responded:

Feminism is the idea that all people are equal and that this equality should be fulfilled by instigating social change, dismantling patriarchal structures that oppress individuals who are not white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender, middle aged males and deposing of the direct and systemic barriers that they may face on account of not belonging to the dominant class of society.

In short, the barriers that people face should be rectified in order to compensate for harm done.

While it may seem as though the gender gap can be accounted for based on the choices that women independently make (choosing to have children, choosing to pursue a low-paying career…), research has shown that they don’t always have power over their own circumstances. For instance, girls grow up primed to pursue subjects in the arts and caregiving, which fall on the lower ends of the earnings scale, while boys are encouraged to pursue high-wage technical occupations in engineering and science.[2] And, while men and women both conjointly make decisions to have children, women are the ones who suffer from the so-called ‘baby penalty’ which shuts the door on future career opportunities.[3]

The bias isn’t always systemic. Direct discrimination is entwined in the nature of corporate culture. Identical resumes, under both male and female names, are more likely to be called back for an interview when featuring a male title. Women are judged to be less competent[4], less worthy of being promoted[5] and possessing fewer leadership skills as compared to men regardless of their true abilities.[6] They suffer from a sticky floor (a tendency to be trapped in lower-level positions), a mid-level bottleneck (a tendency to be trapped in middle-management) and a glass ceiling (a tendency to be unable to move towards executive positions).[7]

Unfortunately, even the practices targeting the alleviation of discrimination can backfire. For instance, regulation requiring companies to give maternity leave to women discourages employers from hiring them. The fact that men are being offered parental leave is negligible as many simply do not take them which renders them as desirable employees compared to female candidates (who may end up taking a leave at the cost of the company). Similarly, the enactment of employment equity can be cause for resentment among colleagues.

This is why employment equity is so essential to the pursuit of gender equality and why the dispersion of information pertaining to these facts is equivalently as important. We need to teach employers about the direct and systemic discrimination faced by women and ask them to question themselves and their organizations as to whether they are treating their employees fairly and, if not, how they can take steps to remedy the current situation in an equitable way.

[1] http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-5.401/FullText.html

[2] www.truechild.org/STEMresearch

[3] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12086/abstract

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2011/04/14/why-is-it-that-women-are-seen-as-less-competent/

[5] http://hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women/ar/1

[6] http://www.astd.org/Publications/Blogs/ASTD-Blog/2011/07/UK-Women-Seen-as-Less-Qualified-and-Capable-Leaders-Than-Men

[7] http://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/diversity/academic/Gender_&_Racial_Differentials_In_Promotions_2009.pdf