Two viewpoints on affirmative action and mandatory quotas
By James Stevens
Should employers use race as a key factor in hiring or promoting workers? Should universities or colleges determine student admissions by an applicant’s sex? Of course not.
Canadian society must ensure there is equal and unlimited opportunity for everybody. The irony, however, of regulating quotas in the workplace or classroom is that it enforces — rather than eliminates — inequality and prejudice.
Let’s consider an example related to the advancement of women in business. If an engineering company is required to fill a number of positions with females – yet not enough qualified candidates apply — the employer would be forced to hire unsuitable employees. When these women fail, it is seen as confirmation of their inadequacy. Worse still, when women succeed on their own, it is argued that they were helped only by preferential treatment.
Such resentment would lead to heightened sexism. However, it’s not an unlikely consequence from a policy that reinforces prejudice. You could easily apply this example to any group based on religion, ethnicity or even lifestyle.
Enforcing statistical guidelines threatens the rights of the most vulnerable member of society, the individual. The point is, if we designate everyone into a group, we will overlook and undervalue the merits of an individual.
Creating a fair society does not mean regulators should seek a desired end result, such as equality or non-discrimination. More good would be done to safeguard the means for an individual to get into the preferred college, or land the dream job. That means as long as people have the freedom to pursue their goals, we are living in the most equitable society possible.
No one wants to hire an unqualified person. But the whole point of employment equity, as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) states is “to remove discrimination from the workplace, not to cause it.”
Employment practices often reflect the needs of employers several decades ago. Times have changed. And so too has the Canadian workforce. Yet many employment practices have not kept pace with this change. For example, some work environments and washrooms designed for able-bodied workers seldom accommodate people who use a wheelchair.
Modernizing these practices is what employment equity is about. For example, making sure work benches and washrooms are adapted for disabled people entering the workplace paves the way for workers who become disabled on the job. By doing so, any given group of people – formerly discriminated against – now has access to better employment opportunities.
The objective of course is to make the workplace reflect Canadian society. However, this does not necessarily mean enforcing quotas, which can be too rigid. Rather, it means identifying the barriers to employment and design measures, with clear goals and timetables, to correct them.
For example, according to CUPE, it would be unrealistic in the short term to insist that because half of the working age population is women, that half of the employees of an engineering firm should be women. At this moment, there would not be enough qualified female engineers.
A reasonable numerical goal would be based on the number of women who actually are engineers (8%) and those who are studying to become engineers (at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal for example, the figure is 25%). A short term goal of 13% would be appropriate without running the risk of hiring unqualified people.
Equally important, is to ensure people who have been disadvantaged the chance to become qualified for new opportunities. If aboriginal people, for example, can’t qualify for certain jobs because they haven’t had access to appropriate educational opportunities, then an employment equity program would have to address that obstacle with training programs.
Employment laws in this country cannot be considered obtrusive if they guarantee all Canadians fair and equal access to the workforce.