Calls for positive discrimination are patriarchal and patronising

Jess Butcher
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True diversity is about diverse viewpoints, ideas, experience, and socio-economic background (Source: Getty)

Social justice warriors are starting to eat themselves.

White accusations of cultural appropriation on behalf of cultures more flattered than offended; white gay men excluded from having NUS reps; women’s initiatives criticised for lack of racial diversity; Germaine Greer no-platformed by feminists – and more.

It would be funny, if it wasn’t so bewildering in this era of identity politics, intersectionality, and talk of “privilege”.

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For women, media coverage of the pay gap, glass ceiling, #MeToo, and more are contributing to an ongoing narrative of discrimination and oppression – apparently “time” is officially “up”.

Increasingly we’re seeing companies, conference organisers, and TV panel shows demonised for unrepresentative statistics and pay gaps; the opening up of female workspaces and private members clubs; women-only mentoring schemes and candidate shortlists.

Is positive discrimination not still discrimination? The oft-cited response to this is that we need to over-correct for the white, male imbalance that exists in so many fields.

On the surface of it, I’m pretty sympathetic to this aim, and I love the energy around the women’s groups and events that I attend. Equality of opportunity is the most important attribute of a democratic society, and I’m a big fan of efforts to get diverse role models out there for the young to aspire to.

But that said, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the more overzealous attempts to legislate for diversity, such as quotas and minority-only initiatives.

First, I believe identity politics is, in itself, divisive. We are all individuals. To get special treatment due to one of our labels is not only patronising, but also potentially divisive to opposite identities, exacerbating the exact same division it seeks to address.

True diversity is about diverse viewpoints, ideas, experience, and socio-economic background, as it is these that define our outlook and ambitions much more than our labels. To assume that any two people think or act the same way because they’re both female, gay, black, disabled, or any other label they had no control over is both derogatory and inaccurate.

Second, I don’t believe that we’re really that far off equality of opportunity – and it’s unlikely this will ever equate to equality of outcome.

I am a minority in my fields of tech and entrepreneurship – hard fields to be a woman in, or so I’m told. And yet I’ve found it to be the most incredible opportunity, and have enjoyed a career that has been more enabled by the support of the amazing men in my life than by my chromosomes.

I desperately want to encourage more women to enter my chosen fields. But I’m not going to encourage a sense of victimhood by telling them it’s going to be harder for them than men, and nor do I think they deserve undue advantage over equally or more qualified male counterparts. I want them there by choice and with categorically no question marks over their merit.

Third, I worry about where these initiatives can lead. Does every company, every initiative, have to be entirely proportionately representative of all genders, minority groups, sexual persuasions and more?

Where gender is concerned, to get more women into finance, technology or entrepreneurship we will need to talk women out of chosen paths in teaching, medicine, retail and more.

Should we be legislating for more women in refuse collection, construction, or on the front line? Convince all women – against their will, potentially – to go back quickly and full-time after having children? Where does it end?

Arguably, the assumption that women need more protection, quotas, and support in the workplace is the most patriarchal assumption of all. Individual women can and do outplay and outrank individual men in many spheres. Let us do that if we choose, without the shadow of positive discrimination.

Jess Butcher has recently delivered a TedX entitled How Feminism is starting to undermine itself' – available online from the end of May.

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City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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