30 Jan 2014 12:09pm

DEBATE: is the workplace sexist against men?

Has positive discrimination reached the point where the workplace is sexist... against men?


Mark Freebairn partner and head of the Financial Management Practice, Odgers Berndtson


Robert Kelsey author of What’s Stopping You: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can

Mark Freebairn
“There is a growing but extremely quiet view that the worst thing to be in this world is a white Anglo-Saxon male. Granted, that view is held in the main by white Anglo-Saxon men, and there has been huge discrimination against women for millennia. But there has always been a tendency with issues like this to go too far in the response.

If you take Sarbanes Oxley, for example, some would argue that the original plan was far too Draconian in response to the Enron issues and that, over time, it has been relaxed to a more balanced response. Some would also argue the same is true in divorce courts. And maybe, just maybe, this has happened with the diversity debate. If we risk pushing the issue too far, that could cause more problems than it solves.” 

Robert Kelsey
“Your use of the term Anglo-Saxon leaves me tempted to reply: ‘Meanwhile, white males of Norman stock continue to be as advantaged as ever.’ A silly joke, though one that hides a serious point about discrimination: it’s everywhere. Citing class and the reactions it can engender also shows how ingrained discrimination can be. Hence why your notion that “the worst thing to be” is a white male is, frankly, ludicrous.

The three main UK political parties are led by white men, who took over from white men (themselves winning office from, oh, white men). Meanwhile, 96% of FTSE 100 companies have a male CEO and, though board membership is improving, take away the gratuitous tokenism of near-powerless non-execs (often appointed for diversity reasons) and it remains as skewed as ever despite 30 years of effort to achieve diversity.”

Mark Freebairn
“The idea that non-executives are powerless or near powerless, and that the women appointed to those roles are there for gratuitous tokenism is a horrifying statement that belittles the value and worth of all appointed to those roles – not least the many women who have taken up these seats.

And regarding your point about diversity, I had always believed diversity to be an issue that was broader than gender, yet the issue of women and men in the workplace seems to get the majority of the news coverage. If we approach any sort of diversity in the wrong way, there is a chance that artifices such as quotas, percentages and skewed shortlists end up being unhelpful, discriminatory and potentially harmful.”

Robert Kelsey
“It certainly is worth noting where potential discrimination against men occurs, but I can think of only two scenarios: where women-only shortlists prevent men even being considered, and where, when two equal candidates remain, the female is chosen because of her gender.

All-female shortlists are extreme (and rare), and are usually aimed at overcoming a structural bias preventing women from even applying. As for the 50:50 bias towards women: these are the very apparent exceptions. Far more often (though more quietly), concerns about commitment, “cultural fit” or even future pregnancy still give the male the upper hand.

As for positive discrimination being harmful, men should understand – and the economy should celebrate – the fact that doubling the potential talent-pool overnight will raise standards exponentially. So the ‘attributes’ that won Rupert his place on the board are unlikely to be good enough for his nephew Alexander. If that’s discrimination, then bring it on.”

Mark Freebairn
“I knew before I started this debate that there was a risk that whatever I said, the opposition would continue to make the same points that have been made for many years about discrimination. So let’s be clear: I am talking about discrimination in a very specific part of the workplace, namely middle and senior management within the finance function and audit chair roles in business. I support all activities designed to redress this imbalance.

However, we should be careful of how we go about this. I have been told, often very angrily, by senior female executives that they are being asked to apply for roles they simply do not believe they are good enough to apply for, simply on the basis of being women. That frustrates and irritates and even angers them - and the anger comes from the frustration of having fought to be accepted as an equal for many years and now being given advantage – thus denying them equality. Some might say that, that in itself is discriminatory.”

Robert Kelsey
“But the problem is that, too often, women are beaten before they’ve even applied and this is a tremendous waste. Any efforts to address this are welcome, even if clumsily executed.

In the end, the point is about encouraging excellence. If 50% of any potential talent pool is handicapped for reasons other than their abilities or qualifications, not only is the cause of excellence harmed, it suggests there’s a structural bias in the recruitment process: something that must be corrected.

Also, and here I need to tread carefully, I think it curious how, so often, we look for external explanations for our failures. It’s what Bernard Weiner calls an ‘external locus of control’ in which we assume our destiny is in the hands of others, therefore handily explaining away our failure to progress. Blaming discrimination is simply one version of this.

Meanwhile, those with an ‘internal locus of control’ assume they make their own luck, and that they’re responsible for their own failures (which require new learning and persistence to overturn). Given this, I cannot help feeling that those white males complaining about discrimination belong in the former group.”

Mark Freebairn
“I have never suggested that positive discrimination is wrong. I understand exactly what it is designed to do and I hope it works. But every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. And as people work hard to try and stop the mass discrimination that has taken place across the world to the advantage of men, I worry that there is going to come a point where that reaction goes too far, as it has in other arenas.

When we realise it has gone too far, it will be very difficult to come back from. And, as in any situation where positive discrimination is used to support a group, those that don’t benefit from that are likely to feel discriminated against.”

Robert Kelsey
“Yes, individual men may feel discriminated against, just as any form of positive discrimination can result in those disadvantaged crying “foul”. But we need to take a wider view.

That is: the professional talent pool is undermined when close to 50% of the population is unable to compete due to an ingrained “imposter phenomenon,” (a term used to describe the feelings of ill ease that professional women can experience in the company of male colleagues). Or even if they can compete, that ability is handicapped by an enforced career break for child-rearing and childcare - a role traditionally assigned to women and something many accept as a natural state of affairs.

Given this, I can only conclude that, in terms of overall discrimination in the workplace, the balance remains in the favour of men.”


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