How to define positive discrimination

Let’s dive right in, positive discrimination in the workforce means favouring someone because they have a protected characteristic.

This could be:

  • Hiring someone with a protective characteristic to fulfil a quota
  • Promoting a specific number of people because they share a protected characteristic

It gained prevalence as an idea in post-apartheid South Africa, formally known as Black Economic Empowerment, as a way of re-introducing Black South Africans into a job market that they had been totally excluded from. To this day, the impact of positive discrimination in South Africa is hotly debated.

Protected characteristics

You might ask, what does favouring someone based on a protected characteristic mean? 

To prevent confusion, the Australian government has several pieces of legislation stating that discrimination is not legal. 

Discrimination against these characteristics is specifically pointed out on the government website:

  • age
  • disability
  • race
  • sex
  • intersex status
  • gender identity
  • sexual orientation

Protected characteristics apply to everyone. The point is that no matter who you are, these aspects of your person cannot be considered when making a decision such as hiring.

Most people are aware of why protected characteristics should not be discriminated against. But what happens when you favour someone because of their protected characteristics?



Positive discrimination examples

Let’s set out a few scenarios to demonstrate what positive discrimination might look like:

  1. Two people are being interviewed for a position. One has a protected characteristic for which you have a quota to fill but is far less qualified than the other. You hire the person with the protected characteristic, even though they are not the best candidate for the job.
  2. You run a women’s shelter and only hire female staff.
  3. Your profession has very few women, so you run an open day for women to raise awareness about the industry.

Only the first example is a case of positive discrimination. Here’s why:

The second example would be exempt as it falls under genuine occupational qualification (GOQ). Another example could be religious schools.

The third example is not positive discrimination. It’s a case of what is known as positive action. So, next question, what’s positive action?

Differences between positive action and positive discrimination

Positive action is a way of improving society by making it more equal. Employers can actively encourage people with protected characteristics to apply to their company. 

Positive action differs from positive discrimination because it doesn’t negatively impact other groups. In the previous example of a women’s open day, no other group is adversely affected by the open day.

Another example of positive action might be advertising a job in a magazine with a largely LGBTQIA+ readership while also advertising in a mainstream channel.

Positive discrimination in the news

As the above examples show, you need to discern between positive action and positive discrimination. Even large corporations don’t always get it right — the BBC was accused of positive discrimination when an internal email was leaked in 2016.

The document stated that The One Show was only looking to hire men over thirty years of age from non-white backgrounds. If that email were a job advert, it would be a clear-cut case of positive discrimination.


How to challenge discrimination in a way that encourages positive change

It all comes down to who you hire. Your office will always look the same if you don’t attract candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds. Additionally, you must consider examining your application process if your office is not diverse.

Are you, for example, accidentally promoting a loud drinking culture that alienates certain candidates? Is your application process fair? Do you suddenly lose more than 30% of female applicants at one stage? Do assessments only work on the latest devices?

Further reading

If you'd like to learn more about discrimination, positive action, and positive discrimination, the Human Rights Commission offer a simple guide. 

Education and critical thinking are the quickest and easiest ways to overcome discrimination.

Consider where you might have an unconscious bias or hurdles for minorities in your hiring or promoting processes.

Then take this as a gentle push to do some independent reading and examine how your organisation might be disadvantaging some of the best talent.

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