Feeling a tad insecure with my ability to land a job in the business world, I had a good heart-to-heart with a business-minded friend recently. And with both of us being ethnic minorities, the above eventually came up in considering the events, drinks and talks we were hunting down to expand our ever-growing individual business networks.
It’s a fact of life for many people from minority groups that I know, including myself, that you’ll wonder now and then whether an accolade you’ve won hasn’t come from the dreaded beast that is ‘affirmative action.’ Here in Britain, it isn’t quite as ever-present as it seems to be in America – we don’t have, for example, ethnic minority quotas at universities (for which I am glad). But we do have quotas being set in the business world to recruit women, or put women on boards, and some organisations seem to fill hidden quota-forming roles in creating jobs or opportunities primarily or only for people of certain backgrounds.
Well, what’s your point? Are you against quotas/affirmative action which benefits you?
Well, yes, and this became central to the conversation I had with my friend. These things clearly benefit us, me in particular; as a black, female, poor and gay person there are few access and/or affirmative opportunities I’m ineligible for. The networking events which go along with all the minority groups I’m technically a part of are central to the career I want in the future, and many of the most successful minority figures have used every one of these opportunities to get themselves to where they are now. But that does not prevent either me or my aforementioned friend from feeling that these initiatives are wrong. Not because of what they are trying to do, but in how they are going about it.
‘Access’ needs to happen to remove many barriers faced by many people in the business world and beyond. But this ‘access’ should happen not when it is too late, in the form of affirmative action programs coming with the hint of the exclusionary from which they sprang. Ideally, it should occur from the early stages – businesses of all kinds going into all tiers of the education system and speaking to students to show them paths they either don’t know or don’t dare to set out on. And many British law firms (amongst other businesses) have started to do this as part of their corporate social responsibility, a great deal of them positively spurred on by US efforts. But under the behest of minority groups I personally find misguided, it seems affirmative action is creeping into the place that widening access initiatives should occupy. This is not helped by the effectiveness of WA projects relying too heavily on an overall better education system where poorly-taught grammar and literacy skills do not fail at the application level the students we seek to inspire. Where their lack of confidence, never worked on, does not spur them on to the levels of the average child from a higher socio-economic class.
It might seem like I’m conflating the challenges faced by minority groups with a poor socio-economic status, but I honestly believe that the biggest barrier to any minority is indeed their socio-economic status, with strong influences coming from their family and surroundings. I am poor, and have mainly lived in non-affluent areas, but my family is highly literate and has always expected the same of me and my education. I have a friend who is white and not ‘poor enough’ for student maintenance grants, but lives in a particularly rough area of the North and who is where she is today because of her family. Focus on nurturing the skills of the children of the low socio-economic classes, and many barriers, most of them mental barriers enforced by physical realities, will not stop these children from succeeding in all areas of life. Though it draws the ire of many BME, feminist groups and others (at least, at a student level), I truly do believe that affirmative action is wrong and that in the future, much of any position I’d attain could be directed towards widening access initiatives instead. This was, in fact, the agreement I found with my friend at the end of our conversation. I must not fail in this goal, because to merely treat the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem, as affirmative action does, is to fail the many others out there alike to and less fortunate than myself.