“Does Microsoft have any plans to end the current policy that financially incentivizes discriminatory hiring practices?” This question, posted by a female engineer on an internal Microsoft message board, was not a complaint about the fact the company is 73% male, or that black and Latin American employees make up just 10% of the US workforce, compared to roughly a third of Americans overall. Rather, it was the opposite.
“To be clear,” the commenter continued. “I am referring to the fact that senior leadership is awarded more money if they discriminate against Asians and white men.”
Microsoft has not publicly commented on the post, although it was reported that plenty of employees pushed back against the original commentator. But the idea that policies designed to create a more equal playing field are, in their own way, discriminatory, is an idea that has recently come to the fore.
The Microsoft comment came just two years after James Damore, an engineer at Google, posted his infamous “memo”. In the 10-page document, he wrote “we need to stop assuming gender gaps imply sexism” rather than biological differences and criticised Google’s diversity programmes as “discrimination” which “can actually increase race and gender tensions”. Google responded by firing him. But, as the Microsoft incident shows, for once the search engine was unable to settle the question once and for all. Has a backlash against diversity outreach begun?
The arguments against diversity programmes
The modern-day arguments against diversity programmes tend to fall into three categories.
The first, heavily referenced by Damore, is that it is pointless because different demographics prefer different jobs anyway. A quick glance at history should show this is a red herring. In 1900, just a handful of British doctors were women. Today, they make up roughly half of the workforce. During wartime, when women were actively recruited into traditionally male roles, they took them up with gusto. In Damore’s chosen field, computing, a woman, Ada Lovelace, pioneered programming, and women were recruited as programmers in the first wave of modern computing before male graduates realised the opportunities of the field and piled in.
The idea of relying solely on self-selected applicants also doesn’t make much sense from an employer’s perspective. If MI5 relied on recruits who fancied themselves the next James Bond, its chances of infiltrating complex underground networks would be slim. Google executives never considered how long the walk from the carpark was for expectant mothers until a heavily pregnant Sheryl Sandberg pointed it out. So, without similar input, are they really going to be best-equipped to anticipate the needs of one of the most engaged internet user groups in the UK, women aged 16 to 44?
Positive discrimination and the idea of a meritocracy
The second argument is that positive discrimination distorts the idea of a meritocracy. As Sir Trevor McDonald, Britain’s first black newsreader, put it in 2016: “I think it would be horrible to be the person who gets the job because of positive discrimination and to have everybody in the room look around and say I know exactly why he or she has got that job, that’s awful. I’m a great believer in meritocracy.” This view is understandable. But research on unconscious bias has told us a lot more about why even apparent meritocratic systems tend to favour certain strivers more than others. You are more likely to get a callback for a CV in the name of Adam than Mohamed, even if the qualifications are exactly the same. A study of 125 venture capitalist decisions found that men and women pitching were judged against different standards.
Talking about unconscious biases is awkward, even if Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests have shown that most of us have them. But as the Microsoft post shows, if they are not discussed, then attempts to level the playing field can be interpreted as discrimination. Such perceptions can quickly become defended as fact: as a state school-educated undergraduate at Cambridge, I often heard passing comments about how so-and-so didn’t get in “because they’re biased in favour of state school students now”, despite 42% of Oxbridge offers going to private school pupils as late as 2018.
Targeting diverse groups
The third argument is a distaste with the idea of discrimination per se – surely, two wrongs don’t make a right? It’s true that positive discrimination is a clumsy tool. A group of Asian-Americans challenged Harvard’s affirmative action policy on the grounds it held them to a higher standard than anyone else. Few outsiders would defend Malaysia’s longstanding policy of discriminating against Chinese Malaysians, even if it was originally justified as helping disadvantaged ethnic Malays.
But there are plenty of ways to target underrepresented groups, without resorting to discrimination. Tech firms are increasingly working with schools to introduce coding skills to a diverse group of pupils and expanding recruitment to include all-female coding camps. Orchestras have introduced “blind auditions” held behind a screen to reduce gender bias. The same principle has been applied by other employers to CVs, skills tests and other initial screening rounds. If employers are willing to collect the before and after data when introducing such policies, they may help to raise awareness of underlying biases in recruitment.
Diversity programmes should include everyone
There will always be some employees who have unshakeable opinions about diversity outreach, but there are many more who could be a help or a hindrance, depending on how it is communicated to them. According to a recent FT article, ‘How to win over men and influence them,’ 96% of companies that included men in gender equality policies reported progress, compared to 30% where they do not. Some, such as Proctor & Gamble, have offered male employees a programme that showed them how they can help level the playing field. There are, of course, many ways that men can benefit from inclusion policies themselves, particularly if they are BME, working-class, or differently-abled.
Ultimately, most biographies of high achievers include friends and allies, sometimes unusual ones. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg found a mentor in the Harvard professor Larry Summers, no one’s idea of a feminist pin-up. Apple’s Tim Cook was appointed by Steve Jobs, hardly one to worry about impressing HR). A female chief operating officer and an openly gay CEO would not have been conceivable 100 years ago. Their appointments are due to merit, but also thanks to thousands of people, over many years, overcoming their prejudices and giving candidates with potential a chance. And that’s what diversity programmes are really about.