Positive action in motion

What is the difference between positive action and positive discrimination?

Positive action is when an employer takes steps to help or encourage certain groups of people with different needs, or who are disadvantaged in some way, access work or training. Positive action is lawful under the Equality Act. For example, an employer could organise an open day for people from a particular ethnic background if they’re under-represented in the employer’s workforce. This wouldn’t be unlawful discrimination under the Act.” (Citizens advice 2017)

An employer can also lawfully employ a female if she is the best qualified for the job over other males who could have been as equally qualified and because females are underrepresented in the company. This is positive action and is not unlawful. Where it becomes unlawful is if a female was recruited simply because she was female but was not necessarily the best candidate for the job in comparison to all the others. This is where it turns from positive action to positive discrimination. The other candidates (for this example, let’s say they were male) have all now become disadvantaged by being male and thus have been positively discriminated against. It’s not positive but perhaps the intentions behind the discrimination were thought to be positive. Generally speaking though – positive discrimination is unlawful and positive action is not.

WISDOM is positive action in practice and its’ work of promoting women in the field of Information Security and Maths is not at the expense of those who are not female. It is in response to the under-representation of women in the field and is based on the general commonality that women share – of suffering from low confidence and self-esteem (imposter syndrome) and the need for support – the need for a community around women to encourage and support one another. Ironically – this is something that every person needs regardless of gender. This is why the activities of WISDOM invite and include men because what we offer is available to all. We also value the support from the men and want to ensure we are transparent in everything we do. The men are very welcome and if they want to be part of a nurturing and supportive community they can. Equality and diversity in this context is not just an issue for women but an issue for everyone. We should all have access to the same rights and opportunities. We should all have the same support in going for a promotion, access to funds and equal pay. The WISDOM group decided very early on that we should all have access to WISDOM should we want it.

From my own experience, as a female working in a male-dominated academic School – I can sometimes feel inferior just because I am female – but I know deep down that is not true and that we are all equal. Perhaps this is the effect of living in a world that sub-consciously biases towards men. WISDOM amongst other things seeks to encourage women to get over their imposter syndromes and see themselves as equal to everyone else. I believe we need to take responsibility to see ourselves as equals otherwise we will be forever holding ourselves back in an invisible mental prison. I un-reservedly support the cause of WISDOM but I also un-reservedly support the idea that equality and diversity is not held back for only one gender. If we want to be equal and promote equality then we need to ensure that when promoting and supporting one group we are not doing so at the expense of another. Equality goes out the window if we reach that stage. This is why it is so important to understand the difference between positive action and positive discrimination and ensure that WISDOM only falls into the box of action.

I am so encouraged to see males present at practically every WISDOM event that is happening. This means that they are engaged and listening to the conversations that are taking place. Perhaps they don’t feel the same as us but they witness the moment when someone speaks and shares a struggle born out of their own ‘femininity’ or whatever that (femininity) is and how it impacts their world. The men hear how thoughtless sexist comments have made a woman feel. Suddenly, in the WISDOM environment – we have all become equals. Engaging and listening to one another in a grown up fashion. Listening to our differences. Understanding our differences. Convoluting with one another to new and deeper levels of respect and enlightenment. There is something so powerful about being simply listened to and understood. This is the action of WISDOM when we meet. We meet to discuss the issues and promote understanding.

Other positive action we are involved in is encouraging more females to apply to our courses. WISDOM has a stand at an upcoming careers fair on campus on the day before International Women’s Day with the hope of inspiring more women into ‘techy’ careers. In addition, a few of us are going to some conferences soon to understand what can be done to promote more women into the Science subjects. We want to learn how we can help to break down the barriers and stereotypes that say ‘women can’t be Scientists, women don’t do Science’. If we heard of a female being given a place to study or job to work here because of her gender only then we would be totally against that. That is not positive action that is discrimination. It is not fair and does not promote equality. We exist to encourage women in these fields but they need to do the rest themselves. They need to study hard, work hard and build their own contacts. If they don’t put in the effort themselves, WISDOM will do nothing to help them. This is the heart behind WISDOM and the movement is led by a group of young female PhD students who love what they do and simply want to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. I hope they leave a legacy that others will pick up and follow and continue on with this positive action in motion.

Join the movement – email wisdom@rhul.ac.uk and we’ll be in touch with further details of how you can get involved.


School Manager / dedicated WISDOM advocate