The devastating blow of positive action

The new law robs those it's meant to help of their drive to succeed, says TV presenter Kat Akingbade

Sunday 03 April 2011 00:00

The day I learnt that I had landed a presenting role, starring alongside the TV magician Derren Brown in a Channel 4 web series, was among the proudest of my life. I was going to do the job of my dreams for a mainstream broadcaster. I was overwhelmed by my sense of achievement and everyone who knew me was tremendously proud.

Sadly, my elation was not to last, as I later learnt that I was picked for the role mostly because I am black. I had believed that my audition for the producers had been the best.

The commissioner who broke the news to me (a person I like and admire) wanted to be honest with me.

"One of my colleagues accused me of box-ticking when we chose you," she began, as we sat down to lunch at a Soho restaurant, her face impassive, "but I was disappointed by his negativity, I see it differently." Sensing my confusion, she continued: "We picked you because you're black. But I want you to see that as a good thing. I think you're great."

The words brought me crashing to earth. I started to question how many of my other successes were real. I thought about other jobs I had, where I believed that I had been the best candidate and where the significance of my ethnicity hadn't occurred to me. I began to question my ability.

I was raised to understand that the world did not owe me a living and I have prided myself on being someone who never accepts something for nothing. But my confidence was fundamentally shaken on that day, the day I learnt my CV was meaningless and I was simply fulfilling a quota.

This week, on 6 April, "positive action" comes into play, making it legal for employers to select from two candidates of equal merit – whichever has so-called "protected characteristics": a black person over a white person, a gay person over a straight person or a man over a woman – or vice versa, whichever is in the minority. The idea is that employers can fulfil government quotas without positively discriminating and breaking the law.

But positive action is yet another unhelpful initiative that makes no allowance for why under-representation happens in the first place. If there is a shortage of suitable candidates from "protected groups" prior to the legislation, this won't improve by 6 April. Employers will face the same pressure to diversify the workforce and will recruit on the basis of protected characteristics, not on merit.

Looking back, I can recall two other incidents where my ethnicity was openly discussed. One where a manager told me that she was sent three applicants, all of whom were black, so there had been "nothing to choose between us"; and the other where my manager said she had been berated for always hiring foreigners (I was born and have grown up in London).

Positive discrimination robs an individual of drive and self-motivation; it completely undermines the achievements and abilities of the hard-working and truly gifted.

If employers are pressed to select candidates on the basis of race, sex or gender to diversify the workplace, they will care less about a candidate's ability, and eventually one "protected characteristic" will blur into another.

I am guilty of it now. When I see a black face on a panel or on television, my first assumption is: diversity.

Positive discrimination is certainly not without its defenders. I am referring to those who believe that without their help those with "protected characteristics" wouldn't stand a hope in hell of succeeding at anything. These people pride themselves in their ability to be offended on another's behalf, people for whom the issues of discrimination would never ordinarily be a part of their own lives.

For me, the bottom line is that positive discrimination/action is toxic. Young people growing up in a world where they believe that they are entitled to special treatment lose their drive to succeed. They lose their sense of pride and accomplishment, and they develop low self esteem.

While in Nigeria recently, working as a researcher at the Andrew Pearson Medical Resources Centre in Ilesha, I was suddenly being judged solely on my abilities as an administrator. I had to dig deep to convince myself that I was good enough to do the job, and it revealed the impact positive discrimination has had on me.

If two candidates are of equal merit the employer's only decision should be to give it to the person they believe will do it best. If that means a white person is chosen over a black person, so be it. It is up to the overlooked candidate to strive to make themselves more competitive in the future. That's the fairest option!

Kat Akingbade was speaking to Paul Bignell

How the act will work

From Wednesday it will be legal to recruit or promote a candidate of equal merit to another candidate if the employer reasonably thinks that person is under-represented in the workforce or they suffer a disadvantage.

The new Act, according to the Government, protects those in certain groups, relating to age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion and pregnancy.

The Act does not allow an employer to appoint a less suitable candidate just because they have a protected characteristic that is under-represented or disadvantaged – that is positive discrimination. This often involves setting quotas to recruit a minority, because they have relevant characteristics.

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