This article appeared in University Affairs, October 1998.
by Andrew Irvine
Among this year’s federal government award winners for employment equity are the University of British Columbia and University of Windsor. These awards provide an occasion, not only to recognize diversity in the workplace, but also to ask whether there is a need for government-mandated employment equity programs in Canadian universities today.
Like American affirmative action programs, Canadian employment equity programs have been contentious. Many Canadians believe that they are well-intentioned but ineffective, that they do little to change discriminatory practices or to improve the lives of those affected by discrimination. Others believe these programs take advantage of people’s natural sympathy for victims of discrimination in order to add layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and to institute an unwelcome ideological agenda. As a result, there is widespread agreement among advocates and critics of employment equity alike that current legislation is both cumbersome and inefficient.
How did we arrive at such a regrettable situation?
Most such programs are based on several competing objectives. These include redressing past discrimination, minimizing conditions of disadvantage (whether these conditions result from discrimination or not), and promoting so-called “preferred employment ratios” between designated groups and the population as a whole.
The difficulty with such incompatible objectives is that no single program is capable of addressing them all. Promoting preferred employment ratios, for example, will not help redress past discrimination. Similarly, while allowing criteria other than merit to favour some job applicants, no employer can act in a completely nondiscriminatory manner. It is this type of inconsistency which gives most employment equity policies their air of disingenuousness.
How can this tension be resolved? Modern democracy has as its basic aim the free, unencumbered participation of citizens in the political, economic and social arrangements of society. By attempting to guarantee that people have the right to participate in the activities of their choosing, regardless of factors such as race, national origin, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, our liberal-democratic institutions have regularly served as the means by which we are able to achieve this ideal.
Even so, many traditionalists remain sceptical about such blanket liberties. For example, some would prefer not to have gays and lesbians teaching in school classrooms, arguing that they provide inappropriate role models for students.
Conversely, some advocates of employment equity believe that alternative sexual preference should count as a positive (rather than negative) consideration in hiring. They maintain that by exposing students to a variety of lifestyles at an early age, children will become more accepting of differences.
Neither view is correct. Anyone who wishes to teach tolerance should oppose this second view as well as the first. Just as it is inappropriate not to hire on the basis of criteria that aren’t related to performance, it is also wrong to hire on such a basis, and for exactly the same reason.
It is by being blind to non-performance-related criteria that we teach tolerance, not by pretending that such things do not matter, while at the same time taking them into account during hiring. As the Athenian democrat Pericles expressed it some 2,500 years ago, “When it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which each possesses”.
If Pericles is right, participation rates are not something that can be appropriately legislated. Democracy is not a guarantee that everyone will have the same preferences, or want to make the same choices. Democracy is not a guarantee of uniformity. It is just the opposite.
The claim that unwarranted discrimination is the only explanation for low participation rates of some groups in some economic sectors is thus unfounded. To believe, as many advocates of employment equity apparently do, that outcomes, rather than non-discriminatory structures, are something to be socially engineered is to misconstrue democracy at its most fundamental level. As the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it, “To manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you—the social reformers—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them”.
If we want to prevent discrimination, numerical targets or goals, as required by most employment equity programs, will be of little help. Setting such targets will require discovering the composition of qualified applicant pools over several generations, something which typically requires the use of unrecoverable statistical data. Similarly, voluntary identification using often largely subjective criteria such as race inevitably leads to unreliable data. Social policy based on such data leads, not only to difficulties concerning justice, but to practical difficulties as well.
What we should be attempting to guarantee instead is equality of opportunity. It is only by recognizing that this is not the same as equality of representation, and that participation rates are not something to be legislated, that truly nondiscriminatory hiring policies will be brought about.