BACK in the early 1990s, a colleague was elected to the
governing board of an institute of higher education, the first woman to be so
elected alongside the first black man.
At the cheese and wine afterwards, the pair were approached
by a long-time board member, a middle-aged white man, undoubtedly the product
of a private boarding school, full of charm and bonhomie.
“So!” he boomed. “Finally, we have representatives of both
minorities on the board – great stuff!”
Unconscious attitudes like these pose a formidable barrier
to the achievement of equality – which is the ultimate aim of all the acronyms
(AA, EE, BEE and BBBEE) that disturb the peace at so many dinner parties and
Those attitudes are crystal clear to those on the wrong side
of them, yet not always so obvious to those who hold them. And they are
incredibly tenacious. Forget about race for the moment – let’s talk gender.
Made in Dagenham was a great film about a true story: the
few dozen upholstery machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory went out on strike
because they’d been downgraded to semi-skilled status.
The strike leader makes this memorable little speech: “We're
on the lowest rate of the entire bleeding factory despite the fact we got
"And there's only one possible reason for that. It's
cause we're women. And in the workplace, women get paid less than men, no
matter what skill they got! Which is why from now on, we got to demand a level
playing field and rates of pay which reflect the job you do, not whether you
got a d*ck or not!”
That strike led to a 1970 law which mandated equal pay for
equal work in Britain, soon followed by equivalent laws across the developed
So 42 years on, surely we’re rid of the idea that “women get
paid less than men”?
Nyet! The global gender pay gap has stuck at around 18% for
10 years (and according to the International Trade Union Confederation, at 34%
South Africa has one of “The highest ‘unexplained gender pay gaps’ attributed
to discriminatory practices”).
It’s just one of those eternal verities, isn’t it? women get
paid less than men. Of course. Quod erat demonstrandum.
We all have unconscious "eternal verities" on
gender, religion, race and so on (the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 includes
pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, sexual orientation, age,
disability, HIV status, conscience and political opinion).
And that’s why the act and that slew of acronyms is necessary;
left to itself, good intentions or "the market" are not going to do
anything to change biases we’re not even aware of.
The act seeks to “achieve equity in the workplace, by
promoting equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment through the elimination
of unfair discrimination.”
Employers are required to examine how their employment
practices might reflect unconscious bias, as in “this job is just better done
by our sort of people” - and consciously act to remove those prejudices.
That doesn’t mean a blanket denial of opportunities to white
candidates – and that’s probably where Woolies went wrong: the wording of their
ad did say “designated for African Black candidates”, if the version I’ve seen
Perhaps the retail giant should have stuck to the more
anodyne version found in about 80% of recruitment ads: "Please note, this
is an EE appointment". (As one blogger said, is it a secret that companies
have been hiring along these lines for years?)
Is this reverse racism?
Well, it’s a shifting of priorities which should mean that a
white candidate will not be excluded but has to be better than his (or her)
competitors when applying for a job – just as women have always had to deliver
more and better to beat a man (recent interviews with a bunch of young execs
has confirmed for me that this is still true, and astonishingly, the women
concerned often simply accept this as a fact of life).
Likewise, a few decades back people in wheelchairs had to be
quite exceptional to rise through the ranks.
In the past, given a dead-heating of candidates, the
position would almost always have gone to the straight, able-bodied, white
male. If he wasn’t something weird, like Buddhist. Or even worse, left-wing.
(Eek! Bring me the garlic and wooden stakes.)
Is it about quotas?
Well, no: it’s about rejigging the composition of your
workforce to better reflect the demographic realities. Employers are asked to
create their own employment equity plan and create "numerical goals"
This is simply sensible; few companies that don’t plan for
this shift can expect to survive the next couple of decades.
Is it about hiring the unqualified?
Absolutely not. The act’s wording says affirmative action
should “ensure that suitably qualified employees from designated groups have
equal employment opportunity and are equitably represented”.
Is it difficult? Yes.
Does it evoke powerful emotions? Yes.
Is it being implemented well?
This is where we fall down, isn’t it? Great policies, poor
implementation. We should – could – probably have been much further down the
track than we are, were it not for certain types of counter-productive
behaviour all round.
Must it be done? No
So let’s can the anger and channel all that energy into
making it work, so we can put it all behind us.
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