The subtle art of handling positive discrimination

Rarely have we seen such great unanimity as this week in the National Assembly. In unison, all parties denounced this call for applications for a Canada research chair at Laval University, which closed the door in the face of white men without disabilities.

Posted at 5:00 a.m.

We understand: this kind of pure and simple exclusion is a bit like a nuclear weapon within the vast artillery available to the labor market to promote parity and diversity.

It’s an instrument that points, that cleaves, that creates a backwash that ultimately harms the original objective. Moreover, this week, we saw the collateral damage that this can cause, while many commentators fired red balls on positive discrimination.

It is true that positive discrimination must be handled with sensitivity, but it remains essential, since we are still far from a perfectly egalitarian world.

Little reminder.

In large Canadian companies, women occupy barely a quarter of senior management positions (26%). The proportion of visible minorities is only 11%, while this group makes up 21% of the workforce. And the percentage is less than 1% for indigenous people and the disabled, who are also largely underrepresented⁠1.

However, diversity is good for society. And it’s good for business. The more varied experiences and profiles there are within the work teams, the more agility and innovation are encouraged. And that translates into cold hard cash.

It is therefore not surprising that powerful shareholders, including the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which cannot be described as wake upthere is increasing pressure for companies to meet specific diversity targets.

So much the better. We cannot naively wait for diversity to happen on its own… or not.

We cannot just apply the same rules to everyone to achieve equality. As proof, the rules that required knowing how to read to exercise one’s right to vote in the United States put blacks outrageously at a disadvantage in another era. There was nothing neutral about it. This extreme example clearly shows the difference between formal equality and substantive equality.

If we come back home, we can say that the use of identical hiring criteria for everyone does not necessarily make it possible to achieve real equality, because these criteria can be biased.

If we rely only on the number of publications or participation of a professor in major international conferences, it is quite possible that the young woman who has young children is at a disadvantage.

That is why we must take concrete measures to ensure that disadvantaged groups have their place in the sun, which is expressly permitted by the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.

Moreover, the courts have already twisted the arm of recalcitrant employers.

We saw it at Canadian National, which discouraged the recruitment of women for manual jobs. In 1987, the Supreme Court concluded that it was essential to impose on it a special program requiring that at least one in four people hired be a woman.

And we saw it with the Canada research chairs. As early as 2003, a group of university women filed a lawsuit to increase diversity. This is why, today, diversity criteria must be respected, under penalty of ending up in Federal Court.

That said, there are plenty of more subtle ways to promote parity and diversity without imposing controversial quotas.

Upstream, companies should expand their recruitment pool to ensure they have a succession ready to jump in when a position opens up.


– By creating partnerships with CEGEPs and universities;

– By launching scholarships to enable young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their studies;

– By offering internships to students whose families do not have a network of contacts allowing them to find their first job;

– By developing candidate banks with organizations that work with minorities.

And downstream, companies should also help their employees to progress in the organization, in particular by offering mentoring and integration programs to prevent recruits from being rejected because they do not master cultural codes or because they have no role model to identify with.

With labor shortages, no boss has the luxury of letting precious resources slip away. We can therefore hope that employers will open up to diversity… without holding a gun to their head.

By preparing better, they would avoid having to appoint a woman or a diversity person in a disaster, leaving the unpleasant impression that we were only trying to hit a target.

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