Flat White

Damaging women in the workplace with 'quotas'

11 July 2022

7:00 AM

11 July 2022

7:00 AM

Identity politics is driving terrible division in our society.

Immutable identity is a feeble, hopeless way of judging the ability or potential of someone. The callous dehumanising involved in identity politics arouses some of the most potent psychological distress. It is completely predictable that this distress will drive disenfranchisement and thus division within our society, rather than driving solutions.

Let’s look at an example. We need more women in leadership positions in society; medicine, business, and science as a few examples. We absolutely do. Yet advancing, promoting, and championing someone to assume a leadership position because that individual is a woman, is completely illiberal and instinctually not right to fair-minded people.

It’s natural that our minds flick form one side of the question to the other, generating a sort of cognitive dissonance. So how do we reconcile this?

The answer is to aim for the experience and qualities that often women can bring and give priority to people who can bring those qualities.

Much has been written about differences in leadership qualities that women often bring, compared to men; for instance, having a more collaborative and distributive leadership style. These are important skills, and those are the types of qualities I aim to model, and also look for in the people I work with. On the other side, I know what it is like to suffer under the leadership of an autocratic jerk (in this case a male).

Another important reason to promote women in leadership is to harness the talent of people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to assume leadership roles because they have devoted themselves to parenting and caring roles. So, let’s prioritise for leadership roles people who have substantial caring roles, who therefore haven’t had as much working exposure to climb the ladder. These caring roles also bring great experience to the table; such as resilience, time management, communication, and understanding of human psychology and the human condition.

In this instance, more women will be prioritised, because on average, more women have been the primary carer for children and relatives.

The legendary Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, gives a brilliant example of the extreme disconnect between two hypothetical people’s actual lives and their position on the intersectional ladder of identity politics.

And it is here that I, and many others, can identify (did I just say identify?) with Nikki Winmar’s legendary gesture, that was immortalised in a photo, of him lifting his shirt and pointing to his skin in response to a prejudiced crowd. This crowd tried to utterly dehumanise him.

When I was knee-deep in dirty nappies, or juggling calls from the school while in-between cases anaesthetising patients, with no family nor help and in desperate panic after exhausting all options about what to do with sick, screaming kids while late for work (where they can’t start a case without an anaesthetist) or giving up huge amounts of work opportunities to nurture kids as a single dad … please think about my circumstances, not my gender. And there were much more difficult situations that I won’t go into where a prejudiced system can stretch you to the limit. After all that, can you see how much it causes hurt, alienation and disheartenment when you say that I can’t make comment, or assume I can’t contribute to a position where I can bring understanding to the plight of many women, but also many men?

I have three daughters who I want to have every opportunity available. I raise money for surgery to repair life-altering obstetric fistulas in women in the developing world as well as programs to prevent female genital mutilation.

Most women know of many men that are in similar situations (friends, husbands, sons, fathers). And most women know of other women who are just as awful as the above-mentioned autocratic jerk! Things often cut both ways. Judge the book, not the cover.

So, what happens if you promote and prioritise the identify instead of the qualities?

If you use the current system, but simply try to substitute in a particular identity, you may be preferentially selecting out those who have the same qualities as the current establishment; that’s what led those people to rise in the current system. You will not necessarily get an appropriate spread of, for instance, the broader experience of women, but instead, the women who have selected themselves out as having establishment qualities. We just don’t know. Let’s have a deep dive to look at the qualities we are looking for, not the identity. And in doing so we need to understand that very real challenges that women often have to unfairly face. But by judging everyone individually, it will open up understanding and not drive everyone to their respective corners in the us versus them mentality that is exploding under identity politics.

In America there is now a swing against identity politics and even traditionally left-wing intellectuals are uneasy about being on the same side as this dehumanising and divisive phenomenon. Remember Martin Luther King Jr’s famous dream of people being judged by the content of their character?

Michael Keane is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Swinburne University, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Public Health, Monash University, and consultant anaesthetist. 

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments