It’s 2015. Let’s Stop Pretending Equity is a Barrier to Hiring the Right Person for the Job

by | November 8, 2015
filed under Can-Con, Politics

Justin Trudeau and Cabinet photo

On Wednesday, newly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet. As promised, the cabinet boasts gender parity and includes an impressive array of new Ministers who are not only reasonably suited for the job, but – dare I say – are exceptionally qualified, meeting many standards for merit that anyone could throw at them.

That we have finally achieved gender parity in the cabinet is cause for celebration. At the same time, I can’t help but feel exasperated that it took until 2015 to achieve this in Canada, while at the same time feeling extremely disappointed (if unsurprised) at the level of sheer outrage many expressed in response to gender parity being named as an explicit goal.

A concern that cabinet ministers would (supposedly) not be selected based on merit suddenly struck many a person previously unconcerned with the state of merit-based selection in previous cabinets. The Beaverton captured the slew of such reactions in the wonderfully satirical piece entitled “50% Female Cabinet Appointments Lead to 5000% Increase in Guys who Suddenly Care about Merit in Cabinet.”

Among the suddenly-concerned-about-merit-in-cabinet was Andrew Coyne, who wrote a National Post article entitled “Trudeau Cabinet Should be Based on Merit, Not Gender.” Mr. Coyne takes issue with the goal of gender parity and argues that the make-up of the cabinet in terms of gender or otherwise should not matter as long as the most suitable person for the job is the one appointed. If gender parity or equity in other elements of diversity are not achieved in cabinet, well this merely means that people who are mostly white, male, middle or upper middle-class, cis, able-bodied, straight, etc., just happen to again be the ones best suited to the job! And you don’t want people who are not qualified for the job appointed to be ministers, DO YOU??

This tired and unsubstantiated argument is used over and over again to mischaracterize equity policies as processes where people are selected for positions based solely on the fact that they are women, people of colour, or hold other marginalized identities – implying that they somehow magically get to skip through meeting core job qualifications for arbitrary reasons.

Of course, all the while oh-so-qualified white dudes are left to cry on the sidelines, unfairly shut out of a position they would almost certainly do just as well (if not better) at, if they were only given a fair chance! In reality, employment equity policies provide better assurance (though not perfect) that qualified individuals who happen to hold a minority or marginalized status are given equal opportunity, where significant advantages have historically been held and continue to be held by privileged members of society.

Disingenuous calls for meritocracy and thinly veiled sexist and racist arguments against equity policies attempt to invoke a fear of a world where people (mostly cis white dudes) are systematically prevented from attaining positions they are clearly best suited for, just because of their gender and race.

The only problem with these arguments is that they are not based in reality at all – oh yeah, and that employment discrimination is an exact problem that exists in the world: f0r people who are not cis white dudes.

Systemic disadvantage in employment and promotion (and many other areas of life for that matter) is a lived reality for people with one or multiple marginalized identities. Although not a perfect solution, equity policies help level the playing field so all qualified individuals are considered on a more equal basis and advantages for any one individual or subset of individuals are minimized. This fact is completely and bewilderingly lost on those arguing for a meritocratic utopia in which gender, race, class, ability, etc., do not determine whether one gets the job or not. Equity policies are put into place so merit can be the determining factor as to why a particular candidate is selected for a position in a world that automatically confers benefits to certain people and groups over others.

The assumption that we must choose between having equity policies in place and hiring based on merit is a false one put forward to discredit anyone who dares attempt to shift the status quo. It has the effect of invoking suspicion when people of any marginalized status attain a position despite available candidates who happen to be of a dominant group.

What we are really choosing to minimize with equity policies, if not completely take away, are the effects of gender, racial and other points of privilege – something that is often spun as conferring advantage to those with marginalized status and disadvantage to those who occupy a dominant social status.

In reality, having equal qualifications (as much as this is even possible) is not enough to combat systemic discrimination – for example, research shows that black men require higher levels of education than white men to be considered for the same position.

The fact is, social disadvantages are likely to become more pronounced over time without the introduction of measures to mitigate or (even better) completely transform the very systems that lead to widespread inequities and perpetuate them.

Arguments against the cabinet gender equity policy also steer the discussion away from important points of critique in terms of how gender parity is framed and who it benefits most. For example, gender is construed as a binary which continues to privilege cis people and likely benefits white women more so than women of colour, as no other intersections of marginalized identities have explicit equity goals set.

Having achieved a cabinet with gender parity and the highest levels of other points of diversity (e.g. race, ability) is laudable and an historic moment, however we still have much more work to do to ensure a more complete level of equity in cabinet selection. Cabinet selection is also but a first stage in this political process – it is likely that women, and in particular women of colour, will be more highly scrutinized in their work and have their competence questioned to a much greater extent than their white and/or male peers.

Broadening the picture even more, we clearly have much further to go in terms of ensuring not only adequate opportunity and representation for cabinet selection, but that people from all walks of life have fair opportunity for entrance into politics in the first place. This necessitates equity in accessing education, health care, and other crucial institutions in our society that contribute to our development and general well-being over the course of our lives.

Overall, I happily celebrate the precedent that has been set for future cabinets. I hope also that this marker of progress motivates us to push further in building equitable processes for cabinet appointments and more broadly in politics and our society. I look forward to seeing what this cabinet has to offer Canadians.

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