There is, quite fairly a lot of discussion right now in British politics about how to address the 'gender gap'. In this great country, we should be ashamed to know that some women can earn as much as 20% less than their male colleagues despite doing the same job. Britain is better than that, and we need to fix this issue quickly.
The history books are hideously dominated by tales of human injustice. From slavery to brutal dictatorships, and the opposition to both women's suffrage and gay marriage, the human race has already faced many examples of outright unfairness. Yet some of the most inspiring and celebrated stories of human triumph have been written in response to such burning injustice. To name a few, the emancipation proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 began the process of giving freedom to slaves, granting individual liberty back to those who had seen it so cruelly restricted, and the Marriage Act 2013 of David Cameron in the UK, which allowed couples to marry each other regardless of sexuality.
I am very much of the belief that the deep, unforgivable gender inequality in our country is in need of such a solution. More importantly, however is the fact that we must find the right solution.
A common proposal is to implement positive discrimination, or affirmative action, in favour of women. This, generally, is the policy of favouring members of a disadvantaged group, in order to narrow the inequality gap. Such policies can be invoked in many different ways. India, for example, use quota systems to reserve school vacancies and governmental jobs based on the idea of positive discrimination. In the UK, the Labour Party requires that at least 50% of the members of its cabinet or shadow cabinet be female.
I do not believe that this strategy is truly representative of equality.
The first clue for me really is in the name; 'positive discrimination' at the end of the day is plainly an alternative form of unfairness. Simply transferring that injustice from one group to another is effectively pointless. Our agenda should be to remove discrimination, not just to change which group suffers from it. We must see discrimination as something we can overcome, not merely something to re-distribute.
There is also an overwhelming sense of falseness surrounding positive discrimination. The current Shadow Cabinet of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has 31 members. 17 are women. This is the first front bench team in British parliamentary history to contain a majority of female ministers. Quite legitimately, this ought to be celebrated; the upper echelons of government have been dominated by men for too long. However, no matter what, the Labour Party now enforces the restriction that the front bench be composed of at least 50% women. This raises a very important question, which for now remains purely hypothetical. What if two female ministers or Secretaries of State resign from their front bench posts? Then, numerically, there is a problem. 17/31 indeed meets the minimum criteria of 50%. 15/31 clearly does not. So then, it would naturally follow that only women could be considered to replace the outgoing ministers, in order to meet the 50% limit. This is a deeply unsettling level of bias. What happens if a male is clearly the most qualified, leading candidate for the post? Surely they would lose out purely because of their gender. This makes the use of positive discrimination a troubling issue. If cast-iron numerical restrictions are in place, then eventually a member of some particular group becomes the victim of discrimination. As a result, the 'equality' achieved is incredibly artificial.
The likely counter argument here is that some degree of discrimination in the other direction might be necessary in order to begin to reverse long periods of inequality. I disagree with this assessment. Of course, we need to ensure that legislation is in place to guarantee that if men and women do the same job, they are paid the same. There is no fair alternative, and it is frankly disgraceful that such discrepancies still exist. But regarding the percentage of women (or any other disadvantaged group) in certain posts? This is the 21st century. There is evidence to suggest that companies who hire a more diverse workforce actually perform better, and reap the associated financial rewards. I think that with a gentle impact in the right direction, we can allow the free market to shape the future, where prosperity and diversity go hand in hand, with both suitably remunerated. Taken alongside laws to ensure equal pay for equal work, I believe we may begin to tackle the problem in a far more fair way than positive discrimination allows.
True equality is the only solution; positive discrimination cannot deliver it.