What Harriet Harman Hasn't Thought of Is a Woman's Right to Choose a Less Well Paid Job

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

What Harriet Harman Hasn't Thought of Is a Woman's Right to Choose a Less Well Paid Job


Byline: SUSAN PINKER

FURIOUS indignation greeted Equalities Minister Harriet Harman'sannouncement last week that companies may be required to discriminate in favourof women and ethnic minorities to somehow 'even out the score' in theworkplace. Many critics protested that the new Equality Bill would interferewith an employer's right to appoint the best candidate. But the real questionis whether these measures can ever deliver the 'equality' that Ms Harman wantsto engineer.

Let's get one thing clear - officially sanctioned discrimination on race,gender and religion is nothing new in Britain. Between the wars, it wasconsidered perfectly fair that married women were legally barred from paidwork. The rationale was that many men were war veterans and victims of theDepression who needed the chance to earn a decent 'family wage'. The tradesunions eagerly supported the measure.

Educational institutions have long used group membership as selection tools,too.

Until 1871, Jews and nonconformists could not attend Oxford or Cambridge.Today, Oxbridge has Government benchmarks to meet about how many State-educatedstudents to admit. At 67 per cent, the Stateschool quota might well have ruledout privately educated Harriet Harman.

But now her Equality Bill aims to make it legal to discriminate against jobcandidates because of their sex or skin colour. What she proposes is thatfemale trumps male and that black trumps white - criteria that are as uselesswhen it comes to job selection as they are arbitrary.

Interestingly, they are the exact opposite of the affirmative action at some ofAmerica's posher universities, where admissions committees now favour malecandidates because females tend to have stronger academic records and comprisemore than 60 per cent of the university population.

Ms Harman seems not to have asked herself two crucial questions - whether usinggender and race to discriminate between job candidates is fair and whether itwill promote real equality.

Certainly, her proposal that companies first reveal a race and gender headcount and then be permitted to reject the 'wrong' candidates to rejig itsnumbers is neither workable nor logical. On a practical front, what on earthshould an employer do when faced with a choice between a white woman, a blackman and a qualified person who is deaf or in a wheelchair and could be ofeither sex or any background? When we consider any groups worthy of specialtreatment and others fair game for discrimination, the individual disappears.

Instead, there is competition for victim status and any new worker from thepreferred group risks being regarded by colleagues as the 'token' - which canhobble an employee far more effectively than their skin colour.

The new Bill is also logically flawed. The reason given for 'reversediscrimination' is that women constitute 50 per cent of the population and yetare not represented in equal numbers in every job at all levels.

The simplistic assumption is that gender discrimination lies behind anydiversion from 50-50.

Yet, even if bias still exists in some places, it no longer tells the wholestory. THE reality is that, since the Seventies, women have flooded into thedomains that appeal to them while assiduously avoiding the ones that don't. Thevast majority of professional degree courses are dominated by women (includingveterinary science, medicine, pharmacy and law).

Between 1971 and 1991 the number of female lawyers grew by 800 per cent.

In Britain, 56 per cent of all high-paying professional and managerial jobs areheld by women, and a 2006 study of Fortune 500 - the American equivalent ofFTSE 100 - companies has revealed that while half have no women in top jobs,the other half promote women to executive positions much faster than their moreexperienced male coltrade- leagues. …

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