Affirmative action — a question of merit?


By Angela Matheson

After six years of affirmative action policy which aims to eliminate discrimination against women and promote equal employment opportunities, you would think female lawyers would have a better chance than most of making it in the workplace. Educated, and from predominantly upper-middle-class privileged backgrounds, female law graduates step into well-

paid jobs, can afford child-care and can, in theory, compete on male terms in their careers.

But a recent study conducted by the UCLA sociology department has shown that women barristers have up to 80% less chance than their male colleagues of being appointed to a full or part-time judgeship. Of the women who have made it, all have more experience and better qualifications on average than men appointed to the same posts.

The study, which surveyed women judges in Britain, Australia and the US — countries with affirmative action policies — showed that considerable delays in their appointments could not be explained by career breaks to have children, since only a minority had taken maternity leave.

The report concludes that anti-discrimination legislation and affirmative action policies make little difference for women lawyers confronted by an old boys' network with a closed shop mentality.

The findings are not limited to lawyers. If you look at the hard facts in the Australian work force as a whole, it seems affirmative action has made little difference to women in most areas of employment who daily confront old-fashioned sexism.

Not much has changed since that Affirmative Action Act was passed in 1986. Women in full-time jobs still earn on average only three-quarters of male wages, and two-thirds of all working women are in just three occupational areas — clerical, sales and service. Women also continue to hold about 80% of part-time positions, which are less well paid and have lower status.

This is despite that fact that the act requires employers of more than 100 people and higher education institutions to develop processes which will remove the barriers women face in study and the workplace. It is supposed to give women a "fair go" — a chance to have the same opportunities which men have come to expect.

Why isn't affirmative action working?

One reasons is that the Affirmative Action Agency, which implements the act, has no power to prosecute companies which disregard guidelines. The legislation requires employers to consult with trade unions and employees, review their hiring

and promotions policies, set new goals for women and monitor the program and hand in a yearly report. That's it.

There is no requirement that any real progress or change be made. If employers fail to hand in a report, they risk being sternly named in parliament. But they cannot be fined or taken to court, and women cannot sue for damages if they continue to suffer from discriminatory practises.

In effect, the Affirmative Action Agency has no power.

Affirmative action also relies on the benevolence of employers to bring about change for women. Amanda Hainsworth, director of public affairs within the agency, says, "We aim to encourage employers to have a look at their employment profile and work out how women are discriminated against. The system is one of encouragement instead of a punitive approach."

Employers, the argument goes, will remove barriers of their own accord once they become aware of discriminatory practices. All they need is a little encouragement.

Yet, despite almost 100% of employers handing in their affirmative action reports, in real terms most workplaces have made few structural or policy changes which eliminate barriers to equal employment opportunities for women. Only a few companies have reported new child-care facilities for workers, the implementation of job sharing and incentives for women to apply for jobs in male-dominated management areas. They are featured in the agency's glossy brochures as examples other companies should follow.

Legislation concerning women and equal employment opportunity is given no real clout while other discrimination legislation is. Unlike the Race Discrimination Act, which has a general provision proscribing discrimination as unlawful, as well as specifying grounds for complaint, discrimination against women in the workplace is not unlawful in either affirmative action or sex discrimination legislation.

Critics of current affirmative action policies believe discrimination against women is not taken seriously by government. They point to agency blurbs and glossy brochures which are careful to point out that affirmative action does not mean there will be job quotas or that women will get jobs over men.

The Affirmative Action For Women brochure states,

"Affirmative action does NOT mean women will get jobs handed to them on a plate. The most qualified, the most skilled — THE BEST PERSON — will be chosen. This means merit will be the deciding factor."

Merit, as the Lavarch committee report into the Sex Discrimination Act points out, usually amounts to women being expected to meet criteria which best fit a male model of the workplace. The agency found little understanding by employers of the gender biases ingrained in employment and promotion

assessment criteria. Hoping to educate employers, the agency issued a booklet which argues:

"Managers and supervisors bring their value sustems to bear on their ... personnel decisions.While these decisions are based on sex stereotypes we are likely to be saddled with narrow and traditionally defined notions of merit ... A reassessment of organisational traditions, values and structural arrangements which disadvantage women ... are steps toward the promotion of women's employment opportunities."

The agency is hopeful that employers will change. But while employers do not have to act, few are bothering.

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