Discrimination is a wide choice

Margarita Alonso. Professor. IE Business School

27 February 2007

Positive discrimination may offer Spain a way to stem its brain drain and to correct the imbalance of sexes in boardrooms across the country.

Anthropologists all over the world would agree when I say that positive discrimination is one of the features that differentiate humans from animals with their instinct for the survival of the fittest. Birds do not want to, but they throw the weakest chick out of the nest; the shark eats its weaker siblings and the lioness mates with the strongest, healthiest lion, not with the most intelligent.

It is true: the Spartans threw off a cliff the children they thought might not make good warriors. But that was all long ago. Nowadays, if our children are not good students, we find them remedial sessions, and if they have respiratory problems, we sign them up for swimming classes and turn them into a Johnny Weissmuller. Did you know that Johnny became king of the jungle because he was a weak and sickly child?

Human entrepreneurship is another example of what distinguishes us from animals. The entrepreneur smells business opportunities when nobody else sees them. He is a visionary and, against what his instinct for self-preservation might tell him, he is led by his innate instinct for opportunity. We also discriminate positively when we choose a representative who understands and speaks Chinese for a new branch office in Asia.

But making mistakes can be a wise option and not in vain are we the wisest beings on the planet. How many failed businessmen do you know? And how many parents have failed to discipline a spoilt child? And, either as a result of error, ignorance, cowardice or weakness, we often fail to discriminate well.

Returning to business, a dangerous error for the brilliant entrepreneur to make would be to appoint a son or a daughter as his successor, when the child’s only merit is driving an expensive car. The American university system also discriminates poorly when it gives state fellowships for promoting diversity to minority students from well-off families.

I refer to these cases of bad positive discrimination as positive prevarication since it is done knowingly and in search of results that are different from their original intent. And these cases can be very damaging because, among other things, they skew the statistics used to analyse the benefits of positive discrimination.

But there is another type of discrimination: negative discrimination. Human beings, like other animals, mistrust unfamiliarity and are frightened by diversity. The real damage that negative discrimination causes cannot be quantified, but we all recognize that much human potential and talent has been lost or squandered due to prejudice.

No doctor in his or her right mind would prescribe an antibiotic for a minor illness; the body has to learn to defend itself. But, when the illness is serious, the remedy must also be strong as is the case of septicaemia. A doctor wouldn´t risk the patient´s life to wait and see if his body could fight off the illness on his own. I am afraid that if today we compare the balance of positive and negative discrimination in Spain the conclusion would not be very encouraging. If we went to Dr. House today and told him that women make up only 4% of board directors when today they account for 60% of university graduates, he would prescribe, without batting an eye, a "broad-spectrum of positive discrimination". He would probably also accompany this prescription with a swift whack of his stick.

Of course, in the past, women in general did not have academic qualifications. While the men spoke of war, the women napped, and only Scarlett was up to saving the red earth of Tara. Homosexuals were considered strange and were only accepted if they devoted their lives to art or design. The disabled were labelled as useless, and foreigners represented exotic markets beyond the wide seas.....but how the panorama has changed in just a few years!

If no one in your company fits into any one of these four collectives, it is time to discriminate. Believe me, you need to. Remember that talent is a rare asset and those who fall into these categories among the standard profile you work with are even rarer.

If you are in politics, remember that most of the work permits granted in Spain are for unskilled labour and if we want to compete on a global scale we need to extend work permits to skilled workers. I suggest you have a look at the positive discrimination policies of the United Kingdom and the USA, where the graduates from the top-ranked business schools are given visas automatically and are not easily let go. If you are worried about the brain drain in Spain, discriminate and employ a foreigner. The Americans have been doing it for centuries with excellent results!

Finally, if you are wary of positive discrimination, and you like music and dancing, watch Billy Elliot, a diamond in the rough that the implacable Darwin would have buried in the depths of a mine.

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