Everyday Sexism

Is discriminating in favour of women by definition discriminating against men?

On three occasions in the last six months, I have been asked to favour female applicants. These were more than just a wistful “it’s a shame there aren’t more women in management consultancy”.

The first occasion was the most shocking: a major UK PLC explicitly said to me they wanted a female-only shortlist. I took legal advice and was told: “if the male and female candidates are equally well qualified you can then give preference on the basis of gender”. (There are of course caveats). Fortunately, the project was cancelled before it became awkward. However, I was left with the clear impression that this was not the first time they had asked an external recruiter to do this.

The other two were less tricky but still worried me: in the case of one, another PLC, I was simply told that “we would be really keen to have women on the shortlist” and on further enquiry, it seemed that I should not favour them exactly but in situations where I might have discounted males should perhaps look twice before doing so with females. The final occasion was a private management consultancy employer, every Partner in the business is currently male, who had an all-male shortlist for a role and when asked “are you considering late applicants” answered, “ yes if they are female”.

My title was deliberately provocative/topical and no, of course, this isn’t everyday sexism but in the same way that the Everyday Sexism project seeks to highlight apparently increased acceptability in some parts of society of sexist behaviour and attitudes it seems that the reverse is happening in employment, probably specifically white-collar employment. I.e. it is becoming acceptably to discriminate against men. Sorry, I meant to give preference to women.

In the above examples I view the first as unacceptable, the second as a bit dubious (not to mention demeaning to the women) and the last as harmless and probably OK. Can I logically justify this? Probably not but I do accept there is often a balance to be struck and sometimes one has to go with gut feel.

There has been much angst and commentary of course about “positive discrimination” in the US and Europe and there is not space here to reprise all the arguments. But in an HR and recruitment context, it seems to me unavoidable that if you have a finite number of vacancies (often one) and an elastic but ultimately finite number of slots on a shortlist (say three to five) then by definition if you are favouring females you are disadvantaging and discriminating against males.

It is sometimes easy to view this debate as a bit remote but an ethical and responsible recruiter (whether someone like me or an actual hiring manager) who is actually day to day sifting CVs and interviewing candidates will always be aware that they are in practice dealing with very real people and their very real lives and making decisions as a result of which someone’s professional life could take a very different course.

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