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Positive discrimination: the answer to improving diversity?


It’s now widely acknowledged that businesses have a diversity problem at the top of the food chain.

The Parker Review, published October 2017, found that only two per cent of director positions in the FTSE 100 are held by UK citizens from ethnic minorities, though this group makes up 14 per cent of the total UK population. Indeed, over half of the FTSE 100 firms did not have any people from ethnic minorities on their board at all.

Women fare slightly better; the Female FTSE Board Report 2017 found 27.7% of board members were female, showing fair progress towards the target of 33% in 2021. Unfortunately, 91.5% of these women were in non-executive positions, providing limited influence and lesser impact on decision-making than executive roles. This has raised concerns that boards are simply creating sham board jobs for women to improve gender equality statistics, rather than bringing them to the table in any meaningful way.

In this context, the recent news that accounting giant PwC is to ban all-male interview panels and shortlists in an attempt to improve access to “career-defining roles” has been welcomed by many diversity campaigners. The move is seen as an attempt to improve opportunities for female employees to make their cases for top jobs; hopefully banishing myths such as “most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board” and “all the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”.

(By the way, these are real comments made to the Governments Hampton-Alexander Review, published on their list of the 10 worst excuses board members had for not hiring women.)

Of course, PwC isn’t the first to have this idea. Positive discrimination or affirmative action as it is sometimes known, in interviewing has been debated as a solution to diversity issues for decades.

The most high-profile example is the ‘Rooney Rule’, an idea that originated in the American NFL way back in 2003 in response to allegations of discrimination against African-American coaches. The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation jobs. The impact of the Rule was instant: in the three years after its introduction, the percentage of African-American coaches in the NFL went from 6% to 22%.

There has been significant debate over whether the English Premier League should adopt the Rule, and in January 2018 the Football Association confirmed that they would implement it when appointing future national team coaches.

But many argue that such measures don’t actually do much to improve diversity, instead, creating a quota system where ‘token’ candidates are invited for an interview with no realistic prospect of getting the job. Some also suggest that such measures are themselves actionable discrimination – although section 158 of the Equality Act does allow for positive discrimination in order to aid those disadvantaged by a protected characteristic, such as race or gender.

So does it work? Well, that’s very much up for debate. The interview stage is just one aspect of any process – including disadvantaged candidates does not necessarily mean they will get the job, and indeed nor should it. The attitudes of those making the hiring decisions still play a part, and without cultural change within businesses views such as those expressed in the Hampton-Alexander Review will continue to hold back disadvantaged candidates.

And wider social factors are at play too – underrepresentation of black British students at Oxbridge will continue to impede diversity as long as an Oxbridge degree remains the benchmark of employability that it has long been for many leading companies.

But for many candidates, an interview is an improvement. It does at least provide an opportunity to put their case forward – a foot in the door where previously it would have been firmly shut against them. It’s not a solution, but it is at least progress.

It will be interesting to see, in the coming months, whether any of the other so-called ‘big four’ accountancy firms follows PwC’s lead, and indeed whether the move catches on in the wider business world. If this move by PwC leads to improvements in the fortunes of disadvantaged candidates, we could see Rooney Rule style arrangements becoming much more prevalent in the hiring process in the future.

Contributor Simon Bloch of JMW Solicitors  

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