I was invited this week to speak at Cambridge University, with the topic title: “Does Britain need more positive discrimination?“. We would interpret this however we liked.
Below is roughly what I said.
In the 1940s, When Vera Rubin told her school physics professor that she’d been accepted into Vassar, an arts college near New York City, he said, “That’s great. As long as you stay away from science, it should be okay.”
Predictably, she didn’t. Rubin went on prove there was vastly more dark matter in the universe than previously thought, and overturned some basic laws of Newtonian physics.
And yet, she was turned down from the astronomy program at Princeton because they didn’t allow women. For years the scientific community ignored her work, only accepting it later after her male colleagues validated it. She didn’t get a Nobel prize for her work.
a) Before you came to this talk, I suspect some of you thought to yourself: I bet someone from the talk is going to open with a sob story of a gifted black-disabled-lesbian woman, to illustrate why we need positive discrimination.
But you’re wrong – I oppose positive discrimination. I oppose positive discrimination with every breath because, like many of you, I believe it to be unfair. Why should someone get promoted just because they belong to a minority group, instead of their ability? It’s wrong!
b) Between 1 and 3% of the British population are white men who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge. Yet, they completely dominate the worlds of higher academia, politics and business. Just 0.5% of all university professors in Britain are black. Just two FTSE 100 companies have a female chair.
THAT, my friends, is the most successful positive discrimination scheme of all time. A group of white, middle-aged men have successfully discriminated against anyone who didn’t look like them for centuries. THIS is why I’m utterly opposed to positive discrimination!
c) Diversity isn’t about gender or skin colour – it’s about background, experience and mindset. But all of those are usually the by-product of having a different gender or skin colour. And studies consistently show that companies or groups with more diversity do better than those more homogenous. Why? Because people with different mindsets look to solve problems in different ways. If we want more innovation, we don’t need more positive discrimination, but we do need more diversity.
d) Look around you: there is rampant positive discrimination everywhere – albeit in favour of white middled-aged men. But worse, because of this positive discrimination, we all lose out. Yes, even you, the white Cambridge man at the back – you lose out too!
I bet you’re thinking: that doesn’t make sense, I’ve hit the jackpot. how do I lose out? But you do.
If our companies and government had been more diverse to begin with, hiring talent from any gender, race or sexual orientation they could find, we would have far more progress than we do now. We could be chilling on hoverboards and flying around the world at twice the speeds for half the environmental cost. We could have solved our energy or poverty crisis .
Put it another way. It’s a bit like me raising you all in prison and then saying, wouldn’t it be great if the prisoners could also enjoy as much freedom as the wardens?
. We aren’t fulfilling our potential as a civilisation because the vast majority of intelligent people out there don’t get the opportunity to use their talents. They are shunned in favour of a narrow minority.
A woman Mexican engineer may have thought of a brilliant way to extend battery life. But since Apple hired its first high-ranking female executive in 24 years only recently, you are still cursing them for the shit battery life on your phone. You lose out too!
This is why I oppose positive discrimination, because so far it has been used to help white men. I want to see an end to this regime of positive discrimination.