Sunday, January 14, 2018

Why positive discrimination is equality over time

I remember a spring day 20 years ago. I was a university student, who had just taken a course on public presenting with a teacher that turned out to be the most transformative in my life. What I remember is not that her forcing me to watch me speak on video made me realize my inner world was much more messy than my presentation. I remember her for one of my first discussions on feminism.

I was a hopelessly shy student who believed she possessed little opinions. And even if I did, I was very uncomfortable sharing them. While on that course, I read news every day to force myself to be even remotely able to have group discussions on day-to-day topics. That just wasn't me.

So when in the end of the course my teacher told me in private that she thought I was a feminist, I responded like so many women: I wasn't. I did not need to be. There was nothing wrong with equality. If anything, I was always just positively discriminated.

I did not think about that discussion for a very long time, but obviously years since have changed my perspective and raised my awareness on need of feminism. There's tons of wonderful writings on the problems and solutions, and my concern is still not that I get regularly mistreated, but that I've needed in many ways to be exceptional when normal should be enough.

A few days ago, I retweeted this:

Let's look at what it claims:
  • Women generally apply for jobs only when they meet all the requirements
  • Some women apply without meeting all the requirements and that requires them extra effort because it is against what they'd naturally do.
Just sharing this tweet meant there was someone puzzled asking to be educated (extra work on women when all the resources are already available). To be honest, it did not sound as asking for education, much more on explaining to me why I shared a tweet that was just wrong using "one woman got selected with us even though she did not fill all the requirements" as evidence that this is not a general trend. Still, see point 2 above: she might have needed to exert extra effort to apply. Regardless, one data point isn't enough. 

In our discussion we got soon to a point I see commonly coming from women: There should not be positive discrimination - "I don't want to be selected for my gender"

The thing is, acts of discrimination are a long-term phenomenon, and we need to look at it discrimination over long term, not as individual event happening at individual job interview.
  • When I was 10, my family purchased our very first computer, and we had different ones ever since. They always were located in my (younger) brother's room and I asked for permission to use it as budget rules gave me space. His access was less limited. 
  • He started working with programming seriously at age of 12 (I was 14). His friends were all into it. I coded games by typing them from magazines already at 12, but I never had a single friend who'd do that with me. 
  • By time we both went to university to study computer science, he had 7 years of hobbyists programming because "computers were boys toys". I had a starting interest with time spent on BBSs and rudimentary programming I had done on "Teaching myself Turbo-Pascal" as schools gave you space to learn, they did not teach anything back then.  Most girls were not quite so advanced. 
  • Most of my university students were with backgrounds akin to my brother. I was years behind. In addition, if I ever did group work, I got told I probably did not contribute anything. Both other students but also some teachers. I needed to continuously keep proof of my contributions, or work alone when others got to work in groups. 
  • Any course with classroom exercises were my nightmare. There were 2% women and many teachers believed both genders needed to speak every time. I learned to skip classes to suffer less. Again, more work just to survive.
  • If I was ready to get help, I had lots of the classmates helping me. Usually with the price of figuring out if I was single or not. 
Back then, this was how things were. I wasn't brave enough to call out any of this. I thought it was normal. That was the world I had always been in. I had no feminist friends to make me aware this was exceptional. I went through it all with plain stubbornness. 

I know I'm not alone with my experience.

So when then I get invited to a conference past the call for proposal process, I recognize that is positive discrimination. Similarly, if two candidates in job interview seem equal and the woman gets selected, that could also be positive discrimination. But we really don't hire just for skills of today, but potential of tomorrow. So it is less straightforward. 

With all the debt on the negative discrimination I've got to go through, I'm nowhere near equality yet. 

So I believe in equity. We need to help those who need more help more than those who started off in a more privileged position. Positive discrimination of equality over time - equity today. 

My story is one of a privileged white woman. The stuff other underprivileged groups go through means we need to compensate for them much longer. 

PS: I spent 30 minutes writing this post and I've had thousands of discussions like this in my lifetime since I realized I'm a feminist. Imagine what those not needing to have these discussions get accomplished with that time.