Affirmative Action and the True Nature of Bias

Whenever the topic of affirmative action is brought up in conversation it is inevitable that both sides of the argument will get heated in the defense of their point of view:

“Why can’t we just hire the best person for the job?!”

“This is reverse discrimination!”

“We need to have gender parity in the work place!”

The policy of attempting to forcibly remove bias from a culture or company will always encounter its fair share of resistance. First of all, people do not want to admit that they have a bias. People enjoy thinking of themselves as a fair and level headed evaluator of the facts. To be guilty of bias is to be seen as a blind disregarder of reality in the pursuit of some underhanded hidden agenda.

The definition of bias from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary is as follows:

“an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially :  a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment”

In modern vernacular ‘bias’ commonly refers to a particular point of view, and often is exclusively applied to what many would call “unreasoned judgment”. But in my own opinion, and even within the above definition, I see personal bias as a necessary ingredient in every single point of view. We all have a unique ‘inclination of temperament’, as Webster’s puts it, which has been shaped over many generations through two major factors: our genetics, and our environment.

I have often been accused of having an even temperament, and perhaps that indicates that I may be able to provide an unbiased opinion, but I would strongly protest that assertion should anyone ever make it. I have been shaped, just like everyone else, by the unique combination of my surroundings and the genetic code within me.

Simply the concept of bias points towards the false notion that there exists an ‘unbias’. That there is an average opinion, or a normal that we should strive for. To vilify bias is akin to saying that someone is too fat or thin, talks too much or too little, or is too lazy or work obsessed. These are all just qualities of being alive. These are the flavours of life. And so it is with our bias.

It’s difficult to even imagine what an unbiased opinion would look like. Without influence from one’s DNA or environment what is left to shape an individual’s thought’s on the world around them? A colourless painting could not be seen, and a flavourless dish could not be tasted. It is our bias that is undeniably and fundamentally part of our personal identity.

Unless you are an enlightened spiritual master that has transcended the idea of a personal self, you are equipped with a natural human bias. And unfortunately for us I think that any such guru would prefer to be meditating in the Himalayas rather than managing the hiring practices of some multinational corporation. This all leads to one undeniable conclusion:

“There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion!”

This is an incredibly important realization in the name of progress. Because no one gets to take the high road as the singular and ultimate source of truth. It levels the playing field. The best we can do is to realize that we ARE biased and to take the best objective look at the situation to locate that bias, and then take measures to fix it.

I take issue with anyone who defiantly believes that we should just hire the best person for the job. I find that approach drastically overestimates a person’s ability to find said “best person”. Anyone who has spent anytime interviewing and hiring new employees would surely agree that is incredibly difficult to determine the best candidate for almost any position. Sure there are fundamental skills and experiences that are required to do any particular job, but once you move past those you get into the intangible qualities that really make a person a great fit. And this territory is highly susceptible to personal bias.

Just for a moment imagine a hypothetical company with a current workforce that is 90% men and 10% women. It is inevitable that the internal hiring processes designed within this organization would be catered highly favourably towards hiring more men. Instituting an affirmative action policy that forcibly injected more women into this company would eventually result in a hiring practice that was fairer to both genders.

It is true that a company may get there on its own without such a sharp change in policy but it would likely take a much longer period of time, and even then it is not guaranteed. People may want to say 90% men work there because it just happens to be work that men find more appealing than women.

That would be putting the cart before the horse.

It is very likely that the 90% group of men that are employed there helped to ensure that any evolution in how work was performed was highly suited for themselves. To be clear I don’t believe at all that this would be done in a devious manner, it is simply a result of the nature of their reality. We all know that there are a million ways to skin a cat, who’s to say that one is better than the other when we haven’t given every approach a fair shot? Everyone not only deserves the opportunity to be a part of the workforce, but also to shape how the work is done.

Image courtesy of Lightspring/Shutterstock.com