Bristol council is at the centre of a media storm after advertising two posts for ethnic minorities only. The council defended its decision by citing the Race Relations Act (1976), as only 7% of its workforce is from ethnic minorities, as opposed to 12% of Bristol’s population as a whole. Whether or not this would fall foul of discrimination laws is debatable, but whatever the legality, I think it was the wrong thing to do, for a number of reasons.
There is a great deal of debate over how to tackle the historical inequalities that exist in the labour market, namely discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, whether it be in hiring or promotion. One school of thought tends to see the solution in terms of positive discrimination, with devices such as all-women shortlists and jobs like the pair mentioned above. The other school rejects this as simply repeating the mistakes of the past (by treating people as blocks rather than as individuals), and puts the focus on meritocracy and treating candidates as individuals. Yet this approach is criticised for refusing to recognise persistent inequalities in the labour market.
I used to be firmly in the second school of thought, and believed that merely creating an ostensibly meritocratic application process would be enough, as this would allow inequalities to be ironed out over time as the best people got chosen. However, while I still believe that should be the main approach, we also need to examine continuing structural issues. Applicants with ‘non-white’ names are more likely to get rejected from jobs then candidates with ‘white’ names, despite having exactly the same CV, which demonstrates continued racism in the job market. Factors like these show why Bristol council got it wrong.
The statistics highlight that Bristol’s council’s workforce did not mirror that of its local population. Even allowing for some natural variance (there will never be an equality between the two figures), this was still a large difference. The reason for this large difference was either one of two reasons, or the mixture of both. Either ethnic minorities on average were less inclined to apply for council jobs, or they were discriminated against during the application process. Advertising for ethnic minority-only jobs solves neither of these issues. If applicants are being discriminated against then they still will be for every other position, whilst ethnic minorities aren’t holding back from applying because there aren’t jobs reserved for them.
What Bristol council, and other companies and public bodies, should do is create anonymous applications (most council office jobs are online applications anyway, so it would be easy to remove the name information and instead assign an application number). This wouldn’t solve everything, as there is still discrimination during interviews, but it would allow more ethnic minorities to reach that stage. Having non-white jobs/training posts solves nothing, it just makes real reforms harder.
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Filed in: Culture,Economy