Affirmative action and quotas in the workplace

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by Rachel Murray

When thinking of implementing quotas in the workplace in order to help with imbalances in race, gender, and ability, many of us might scrunch our brains trying to think if this is fair or not. Is this reverse discrimination? How will it ‘sit’ with employees? With people outside of our company who are judging us? Where are we right now when it comes to having an ‘appetite’ for putting quotas in place?

First, let’s talk about the history of quotas in the US, to clear up some common misconceptions. Many people conflate quotas and affirmative action. Affirmative action in the United States is a set of laws, guidelines and practices, established by the federal government in 1965, after Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The goal was to combat discrimination faced by historically excluded groups in the workplace, primarily racial minorities, women, and those with disabilities. President Johnson’s executive order required federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. That same order also created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the US Department of Labor Before signing the order, President Johnson said in a speech at Howard University’s Commencement, “Freedom is not enough… You do not take a person who, for years, as been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Johnson’s executive order was then furthered by President Nixon in 1969 when he called for unilateral affirmative action for all government employment. Affirmative action then found its way into education in 1968’s Supreme Court Green v. County School Board of New Kent County ruling. This required that all school boards provide a plan to end segregated systems in their district in order to be in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education. You can find more information about the origins of affirmative action in the United States and beyond.

Quotas themselves are one possible solution to discrimination and can be seen as taking a step toward affirmative action. They are metrics that companies and organizations establish to increase the number of underrepresented and marginalized  groups in order to create a more diverse workforce. If you’re wondering why companies may want to do this, you can learn more about creating the business case for inclusion over here.

Quotas are controversial for a variety of reasons which we’ll explore here, but it’s worth noting that quotas may have a place in some particular circumstances and have been proven effective in other parts of the world. Opponents of quotas argue that they’re unfair because it means the best candidates don’t get the positions they deserve and even those that may ‘benefit’ from quotas may experience a stigma of being hired just because they’re “X”. So if employees aren’t sold on the idea, and those that are from underrepresented groups are further discriminated against due to the rule, does it even make sense? The answer is it depends. Unconscious bias is still very much a reality, and the data shows that there is still a need to consider ways to encourage greater diversity in the workplace. Here are some examples to get you started.

The Conversation conducted a study to see how perceptions of discrimination pair with quotas. The results were pretty clear – if a group of people believe that a group has been treated unfairly, they are much more receptive to the idea of quotas as a way to balance unfairness. If they weren’t, then quotas were seen as a terrible idea. Another article examines the pros and cons of quotas and notes that if the conversation around it is about righting past wrongs rather than simply increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups, that’s viewed more favorably as well. And the Founder of Lesbians Who Tech wrote a piece on her successful use of quotas, which I believe was successful because her organization was already bought into the idea that discrimination and bias are real.

All this is to say that if your company or organization is already committed to the idea that we live in a reality that is not merit-based, and that underrepresentation of a particular group is  due to systemic marginalization, then quotas may be the right solution for you. Otherwise, there are other approaches that can be less fraught and create more buy-in, such as voluntary unconscious bias workshops, creating processes around your hiring process to mitigate bias, offering to support organizations that create community within marginalized groups, and more.

What do you think? Continue the conversation on Twitter.

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