Employment equity isn’t about quotas. It’s about providing opportunities for competent individuals

Toronto Star
August 14, 2010

Ratna Omidvar

It angers Canadians to think that someone could get a job just because of the colour of his or her skin.

And it should.

According to the Ethnic Diversity Survey, about 20 per cent of visible minorities, or 587,000 people, have sometimes or often experienced discrimination or unfair treatment because of their ethnicity, culture, race, skin colour, language, accent or religion. They are most likely to say they face discrimination when at work or when applying for work.

While employment equity has helped make great strides in hiring women, aboriginal people and people with disabilities into the public service, it has yet to achieve its targets with visible minorities. Visible minorities make up 9.8 per cent of federal employees compared with 12.4 per cent of the national workforce. What’s more, these overall numbers mask a “glass ceiling” within the public service, where the leadership is still overwhelmingly white and male.

This is not to say that employment equity has had no impact. In fact, those private sector organizations that fall under employment equity legislation (organizations with large government contracts and federally regulated companies such as banks) have higher numbers of visible minorities in their workforce and leadership than other organizations. They are more diverse because the act makes them report on their diversity efforts and, by so doing, helps to shine a light on their hiring practices. Some of these organizations are now champions of diversity, since they have come to recognize that a diverse workforce makes business sense and has a positive impact on their bottom line.

Last month, the federal government first announced its intention to review employment equity policies.

This was in response to a single complaint over the one or two per cent of public sector jobs that are reserved exclusively for under-represented groups. It is indeed heartening to see how responsive the government can be to a single complainant. So perhaps it is not naive of us to call the attention of the government to the complaints of those, more than 500,000, who too have experienced discrimination.

The attention this one complaint has received is unfortunate because it detracts from employment equity’s larger objectives and it casts into doubt the competency of visible minorities who have been hired into the public service. What was missed in the many comments and letters to the editor following the announcement is the fact that employment equity is not about quotas. It is about merit and about providing opportunities to competent individuals who might otherwise be overlooked.

The minister responsible for the review, Stockwell Day, went on CBC a day later to say that the government had done an initial review and that it was ongoing. He explained that he was satisfied that the government’s employment equity policies were working and public sector departments were meeting or exceeding their targets for hiring under-represented groups. However, as we have already seen, this is definitely not the case with the hiring and promoting of visible minorities.

It is an unfortunate truth that who decides “merit” often does so from a biased perspective. Twenty years ago this writer was asked to change her name to “Rose” to make herself more employable. This may come as a surprise to some readers, but it isn’t a surprise to the hundreds of thousands of visible minorities applying for work and promotions today. Recent studies have shown that identical resumés are more favourably reviewed when the applicant has a name like “Smith” rather than “Ali.”

Rather than focus on what amounts to 100 or so positions, we should refocus the discussion on visible minorities who experience discrimination. The review should determine whether or not the employment equity policies have gone far enough. Why is it that private sector companies have higher proportions of visible minorities in their workforce compared with government departments? Why hasn’t the public sector kept pace?

The review could revisit, for example, the public service’s preference for applicants with Canadian citizenship. It could uncover the jobs where this preference is bona fide, and where it constitutes an unnecessary barrier. For many immigrants, working for the government of Canada is an aspiration and an ambition. The preference effectively excludes 1.5 million residents, most of whom are visible minorities, from one of the largest employers in Canada.

The government should clarify that employment equity is about giving opportunities to qualified individuals who face discrimination in the Canadian workforce – and not about hiring people who are unqualified. This will reassure the visible minorities already employed with the public service that they are valued, and it will encourage others to continue to apply for public service positions.


Reference: Toronto Star