In Depth

What is positive discrimination - and does it solve inequality?

National Police Chiefs’ Council boss says urgent action needed to combat ‘unconscious bias’ among recruiters

The leader of Britain’s police chiefs has called for radical new laws that allow authorities to positively discriminate in favour of ethnic minorities when recruiting employees.

In an interview with The Guardian, National Police Chiefs’ Council chair Sara Thornton said that “unconscious bias” still permeates UK policing and often affects promotion decisions. Officers from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are also more likely to face disciplinary action than their white colleagues, she added.

Thorton argues that police ranks “will be too white for decades to come” unless new positive discrimination legislation is enacted to “shock the system”.

“It will take a long time. The turnover of police officers is really quite slow, so it is about 6% a year, it’s always going to take you a long time, and it’s about whether we can wait,” she said.

The statistics appear to back up Thornton’s argument. Home Office figures show that as of March 2018, 93.4% of police officers in England and Wales were white, with just 6.6% from other ethnic groups. Yet 14% of the general population in Britain is BAME.

Nevertheless, race-based discrimination remains not only controversial but also illegal in the UK. So is it time the laws were rewritten?

What is positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination, known as affirmative action in the US, is the process of increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups - such as ethnic minorities, women or disabled people - in workplaces from which they have been excluded, by preferentially selecting recruits with those characteristics.

Although many countries - including the US - allow the practice of positive discrimination, it remains illegal in the UK under the Equality Act 2010, on the grounds that the process does not accord equal treatment to all races.

The practice should also not be confused with positive action, which became legal in the UK in April 2011. Professional network the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) defines positive action as measures taken to support the recruitment of underrepresented minorities “to redress past discriminations or to offset the disadvantages arising from existing attitudes, behaviours and structures”. 

Crucially, positive discrimination allows an employer to pick a candidate specifically on the basis of their protected characteristic, whereas a company can only evoke positive action when choosing who to hire or promote “if it is faced with two candidates who are ‘as qualified as’ each other”, says free-access HR website Personnel Today.

Does positive discrimination work?

Diversity appears to be an important factor in business. According to research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are “more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians”.

The research also found that diverse companies “are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making”.

Yet diversity in the workplace continues to be held back by recruitment biases, reports Forbes, which says that employers “might have subconscious or stereotypical views of what a successful person looks like, which can affect how [one] compares and contrasts different candidates rather than assessing each on their own individual merit”.

But is positive discrimination the way to achieve diversity? In an article for The Guardian, civil service analyst Louise Maynard-Atem argues that positive discrimination “serves not only to lessen the sense of achievement for those on the right side of the coin, but also to foster resentment for those who aren’t part of the chosen minority”.

Meanwhile, recruitment site Launchpad asks whether positive discrimination might “increase the risk of hiring people who aren’t right fit for role” and “inadvertently perpetuate bias because there’s a belief that people are not selected on their skills, values and behaviours alone”.

Despite such fears, stalling recruitment and lagging career progression among BAME communities has led a growing percentage of ethnic minority officers to believe that positive discrimination should be legalised.

Speaking at a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing earlier this week, National Black Police Association president Tola Munro told MPs that continuing failures of other initiatives meant positive discrimination was the only viable option left, policing news website Policing Professional reports.

Munro cited a survey of BAME officers in October that found 80% were in favour of positive discrimination, up from around 35% in 2013.

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