Opinion: on positive discrimination

November 30th, 2020

Positive discrimination: treat a candidate applying for a role more favourably on the grounds of the nine ‘protected characteristics’ – race, gender, disability, marital status, religion/belief, pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender reassignment



Thinking about from a moral standpoint has not been that useful to me. I get caught up in multiple perspectives.

  • "If we don't, the problem will never go away"

  • "You should judge people based on merit"

  • "It is patronising, implying those people don't have the skills for the job"

  • "It's only fair"

  • "It's the opposite of meritocracy"

  • ...

And that just causes me to get both judgy and lost.



Better decision making

A more useful model for thinking about this is from a value point of view.

There is a lot of value in diversity and risk in non-diversity.

The value is mainly this

diversity + psychological safety => better decision making

non-diversity + psychological safety => worse decision making

I am not going in to 'lack of psychological safety' and 'groupthink' here.

Assuming in both cases, that psychological safety is present.


In Book: the Wisdom of Crowds they describe why diverse crowds allow for better decision making. Because diverse crowds cancel out each other's bias, while non-diverse crowds multiply and confirm each other's bias. (Model: wisdom = aggregated local knowledge)


An important thing to note here is that in this model, diversity means difference in bias. Which is not the same as in the context of discrimination as mentioned above, where it implies 'protected characteristics'. I do think that difference in 'protected characteristics' is likely to correlate with difference in bias. But I also think that it's not limited to these few 'protected characteristics'. Eg. I believe someone from a rich/elite background is likely to have differing bias from someone from poorer background. But that is not part of those 'protected characteristics'


Competitive advantage

Better decision making is a competitive advantage.


For competitive advantage we need diversity.


From a 'decision making' point of view: what is the value of adding in a nth person to a crowd with already largely the same bias as that person? Negative value! It will increase the bias, causing worse decision making.


So two people of 'equal skill', whatever that means, one increasing diversity and the other not, one is clearly more valuable to a crowd's decision making. Which person would increase the diversity, depends on who is already in the crowd!


How much do you value decision making? I like to compare this to soft-skills vs hard-skills in software development. The industry seems to agree that soft-skills have value nowadays. Before we believed that communication skills barely mattered compared to individual productivity. Now the industry values soft-skills much more, making trade-offs with hard-skills much more easily.

We should start including diversity in that trade-off.