Positive Discrimination

Positive Discrimination

Positive Discrimination


Positive Discrimination, the practice of giving preferential treatment to members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, especially in recruitment and promotion, and the provision of education and services.

Positive Discrimination

Positive discrimination differs from equal opportunities policies in that the latter advocate disregarding race, colour, gender, sexuality, religion, and nationality in the selection process, while positive discrimination gives preferential treatment to people on the basis of such categories. The main beneficiaries of positive discrimination have been women and members of ethnic minorities, including black people in the United States and the “scheduled castes” (former untouchables and various hill tribes) in India. Members of certain religious groups, disabled people, and (in the United States) war veterans have also benefited.

Positive discrimination includes a wide range of practices. These are sometimes described as “affirmative action” or “positive action”, and which attempt to compensate for deprivation or prejudice that certain groups have suffered in the past, and that continues to put them at a disadvantage. For example, it has been found that certain ethnic groups are more likely to have suffered poverty or to have been poorly educated, putting them at a disadvantage when applying for jobs. Women or members of ethnic minorities may have been denied job opportunities in the past because of prejudice, and therefore lack the experience required for promotion. Positive discrimination aims to take past disadvantages into account when assessing job applicants so that inequalities are not perpetuated.


Positive discrimination originated in the United States in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. The first step came in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination in employment, public accommodation, and education on the grounds of race, colour, religion, gender, or national origin. The act called for affirmative action to compensate for past discrimination; for example, workers who had been sacked on racist grounds had to be reinstated. As a result, courts began to impose far-reaching remedies for discrimination. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of laws were promulgated to ensure that all organizations with federal contracts complied with equal opportunities legislation and instituted affirmative action programmes.

Employers now have to report to the government on the numbers of staff employed by certain ethnic groups, and set annual goals for representation of minorities within the workforce and timetables for achieving these goals. Recruitment procedures were also reviewed and guidelines were drawn up aiming to eradicate the use of tests or entry requirements that were not essential to a job if they resulted in the rejection of candidates from minority groups. As a result of this legislation, affirmative action is mandatory in the United States, but the concept is now so deeply ingrained in the cultures of universities, businesses, and government organizations that these practices probably would continue without regulation.

Positive Discrimination


The move towards positive discrimination has been slower in Europe and it is largely carried out on a voluntary basis. In 1984 the European Council made a Recommendation of Positive Action for Women, urging member states to address unequal opportunities for women in employment. For example, states were encouraged to take measures to raise awareness of prejudicial attitudes; to improve the training and counselling available to women, and to adapt working conditions and hours to suit women with childcare commitments. In the United Kingdom, the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) sought to eradicate discrimination against women in employment. The Race Relations Act of 1976 enabled government bodies and other organizations to provide special education, training, and welfare services for members of certain racial groups. However, neither act allows for anything more than “positive action”, whereby past discrimination is counter-balanced by non-discriminatory training programmes. Both acts also made positive discrimination on grounds of race or gender illegal.

Employers and other organizations, most recently the police, may make efforts to target certain groups, for example by advertising jobs and services in the ethnic minority press. Political organizations sometimes use positive discrimination because they believe that it will make them attractive to the electorate. For example, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom tried to increase the proportion of women in Parliament by drawing up women-only shortlists for certain parliamentary seats. However, this policy was dropped after it was challenged in court and found to contravene anti-discrimination legislation.

In a landmark case in the United States, three white students took their university to the Supreme Court for incorporating affirmative action—giving extra points to applicants from ethnic minorities—in its admissions policy. Michigan University has just 8 per cent of black students—a serious under-representation of the surrounding population. Detroit, the nearest city, has a population composed of over 80 per cent black people. President Bush joined the white students’ lawsuit but in June 2003 the Court ruled that the using of race as a factor in admissions was permitted to continue while the admissions points system as a whole must change to fit in with the Constitution.

There are a few examples of government-led positive discrimination programmes outside the United States. Affirmative action has been mandatory in Northern Ireland since 1989 when organizations were ordered to ensure the equal representation of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the workforce. In India, positive discrimination policies have been operating since independence in 1947 to guarantee large quotas of university places and government posts to the scheduled castes. Before 1995, in the United Kingdom employers were given a quota which stated that 3 per cent of the workforce had to comprise people with disabilities; certain classes of a job, for example, could be taken only by people with disabilities who were registered as such. The only jobs so specified were lifted attendants and car park attendants. The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 (DDA) repealed both the quota system and the requirement that certain jobs were only to be undertaken by the disabled, which had proved to be unworkable. A disabled person can now take action on an individual basis when he or she is discriminated against. The DDA only covers direct discrimination, unlike the SDA, which covers discrimination both direct and indirect. Employment tribunals will hear DDA employment cases. The act only affects employers of 20 or more people (as did the previous legislation) and covers areas other than employment, such as education and public transport. Employment provisions come into force in late 1996.


Positive discrimination has been successful in improving the representation of minority groups in the workforce, particularly in the United States. However, some argue that it is counter-productive because it hardens racial divisions in society, by putting certain sectors of the population at a disadvantage. In India, higher castes have protested against positive discrimination because of the increasingly fierce competition resulting from a limited number of university and government places. Others argue that its success has been limited to certain minority groups: for example, critics in the United States say that it has primarily benefited middle-class women and black people but failed to address the problems of poorer members of these groups. There has also been much discussion about whether positive discrimination has resulted in falling standards if less qualified candidates from minority groups are given preference over other, better-qualified candidates. In the United Kingdom the law has intervened only in the area of employment; certain classes of a job, for example, may be taken only by people with disabilities registered as such. The only jobs so specified are lifted attendants and car park attendants. In general, employers are given a quota which states that 3 per cent of the workforce must comprise people with disabilities.

Positive Discrimination

Contributed By:
Jane de Gay

Nguyen Tran Huyen My’s sport shoot