There are thousands of minority groups living in the UK who are disadvantaged in some way. Instead of spoon-feeding them towards success, a better policy exists to ensure their vulnerabilities are protected


These days, almost everyone is familiar with the terms ‘affirmative action’ and ‘positive discrimination’. However, few of us are actually aware of what these policies are and how they’re enforced.

Affirmative Action was first introduced in America in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. The idea was to introduce quotas into the workplace to improve minority representation and increase economic opportunities for those who may not have been able to gain a similar job otherwise. Affirmative Action was also designed to end discrimination in the workplace because of creed, colour, or national origin. Since its introduction, it has been highly controversial, and states including California, Washington, Michigan, and Arizona have abolished the policy.

Admittedly, the policy isn’t perfect. Those from ethnic minority backgrounds are often chosen for that sole reason despite having lower SAT scores than those from non-minority backgrounds. However, it isn’t true that more ‘white’ students would be able to get into their university of choice if it wasn’t for Affirmative Action; Asian students are disproportionately overqualified for these places and many more of them apply for the same limited number of spaces. This idea that Affirmative Action is actually simply another form of discrimination has persisted and even gained influence, especially in the UK.

Positive discrimination is illegal in the UK. The 2010 Equality Act replaced previous anti-discrimination laws in order to make it easier and clearer to understand different types of discrimination and to strengthen protection in certain situations. The Equality Act also introduced ‘positive action’ to the UK: a way of trying to assist deep-rooted or historically disadvantaged groups by helping to ensure they have the same opportunities as other people. The Act protects characteristics such as age, gender and gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation, disability, religion or belief, and race.

Positive Action is not compulsory. Employers can choose to take positive action measures, but they aren’t required to do so by any means. There are no quotas and the new provisions still allow employers to select the most qualified applicant for the job so recruitment/promotion is still done on merit. Employers can treat a candidate from a disadvantaged or underrepresented group more favourably as long as both candidates are equally qualified. The basis for making such a decision would be to increase representation of that group if they were considered underrepresented or a minority within the firm. ‘Underrepresented’ is a term used for referring to a situation where the diversity of the local community is not reflected in the workplace.

Positive Action does not necessarily constitute earning a job either. Examples of Positive Action include encouraging particular groups to apply through job advertisements, or recruitment and training schemes in order to reach members of the younger generations of these groups. But why is Positive Action necessary?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests the following reasons: meeting the different needs of an employer’s workforce can help make staff more productive; recruiting from a wider range of people (in terms of protected characteristics) can help an organisation understand its customers/clients/service users better; and if the employer is a public authority, positive action may help them meet the public sector equality duty. However, there are other, more divisive reasons rooted in historical inequality.

Statistics from show that around two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities live in low-income households, which is twice the rate compared to White people. The gap between the proportion of ethnic minorities and white families living in low-income households is the same as a decade ago, and the ethnic groups with the greatest risk of low income are the same as a decade ago (Bangladeshi and Pakistani). People from ethnic minorities are at all ages, more likely to live in low-income households. According to the Institute of Race Relations, approximately 20 per cent of the British population is non-White, but currently non-White MPs make up 6 per cent of the new Parliament. Similarly, the Office for National Statistics states that women account for slightly over 50 per cent of the population in all four constituent countries of the UK, but women make up only 29 per cent of the MPs in Parliament.

It isn’t realistic to ask for every workplace, including the government to accurately represent every portion of society. Nevertheless, the fact remains that representation isn’t currently as proportional as it could be, and there are groups of people suffering from this lack of representation — people with ‘protected characteristics’.

For people trapped in low-income backgrounds and facing a relative lack of opportunities compared to others who don’t share certain protected characteristics, policies like Positive Action could really make a difference. Positive Action may not be a perfect response, but it’s a start.



‘Positive Action’. The Law Society, 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.