Differing approaches to fairness

The idea of gender and minority hiring policies has a interesting effect on conservatives. A recent tweet by Calgary councillor Ward Sutherland illustrates this. His tweet was a link to a Calgary Sun article with Ward quoting his comment from the article. The interesting thing to note here is that this is, at this point, just Rick Bell getting himself and his readership worried about hypotheticals.

I think that progressives and conservatives approach this issue from the same point. Both are concerned with fairness. Progressives look at the issue and see a workplace or a series of positions of authority that don’t represent the population and seek to address that inequity. Conservatives see the same situation, and may or may not see a problem, but object to hiring people based on gender or race. Not that I think they necessarily object to this practice in and of itself but that they assume that this will result in people being hired that are not qualified for the position.

Lets look at Ward Sutherland’s quote.

I’ll be selecting the best qualified to move Calgary forward regardless of gender or ethnicity — period

Whether he intends it or not, the inference that Sutherland makes is that there are, or might be, people that will make a decision based on gender or ethnicity. His second inference is that this is not a good thing.

There is an assumption here that hiring is done just on qualifications and this is simply not the case even if you don’t look at ethnicity or gender. Executives are taller on average than the rest of the population, your looks impact your wage level, weight affects your wage and the impact on wages and career progress based on ethnicity and gender are also clear.

As 2005 study on the US labour market published by the American Sociological Association was quite clear on this:

Personal and social biases often color employer expectations of on-the-job performance. For example, employers might exaggerate average differences between the skills of whites and African Americans because of their own tendencies to stereotype by race

Even if you don’t accept the latter, there is more than enough evidence to make it clear that people don’t just look at a c.v. and base their decisions. It is difficult to remove your own preconceptions and biases and approach a situation without them. It would also be problematic to do so. You need to interview candidates and see if they will be a good fit for your organization.

Typically this is one of the last steps that happen in a hiring process. One has to assume that the HR staff have already vetted the candidates to remove people clearly unfit for a position so that if someone is in the final stages of an interview process, the process where council members like Sutherland are involved, the candidates are being interviewed not on their qualifications but on their fit for the position.

So if the Mayor does want to try to hire a more diverse staff then we are left with two positions. Either one assumes that this means he will be giving a preference to certain people from a pool of qualified candidates based on gender and ethnicity or he is just giving the job to a person only based on their ethnicity or gender.

This is the conundrum that I think conservatives find themselves in. When they attempt to work against these types of policies, or make a stand against them, they find themselves in this position. Either their opponents are just trying to pick from a pool of qualified candidates or they are trying to push unqualified candidates into a position they don’t deserve.

Now I can understand why Rick Bell and the Calgary Sun take this approach. They are basically trolling their readership to rile them up and sell some papers or generate some ad views on their websites. The internet is full of writers like Bell who take controversial positions just to generate traffic. The tech industry is rife with them as are politics and news sites.

Why politicians do this is more confusing. Either someone like Ward Sutherland believes that hiring policies like this lead to unqualified candidates (I’ve asked him this via Twiiter) or he is just trying to rile up his base in a manner similar to Rick Bell and his ilk. Its difficult to determine what he actually thinks on this issue but based on some of the tweets he has retweeted it seems he is probably just not a fan of the Mayor and is responding simply in opposition to him.

What it does do though is push politicians like Sutherland, and his followers one suspects, further into a corner. The more they complain about these policies and talk about only finding “qualified” candidates the more they infer that women and minorities are not qualified for these positions. Whteher that is the intention is irrelevant. They can’t argue this issue based on statistics and facts because studies are clearly not in their favour. The emotional response, which Sutherland appears to be using, is one that might play well to his base (I have to assume that it does or he wouldn’t do it) but casts him as a regressive defender of the status quo who looks poorly on the qualifications of women and minorities.