Comment: Green election shows how positive discrimination hurts women

Ian Dunt: Allen and Phillip were dropped because they owned vaginas, while Will Duckworth and Richard Mallender remained in the race because they had penises.
Ian Dunt: Allen and Phillip were dropped because they owned vaginas, while Will Duckworth and Richard Mallender remained in the race because they had penises.
Ian Dunt By

By Ian Dunt

Minutes after Natalie Bennett was elected Green party leader, deputy leadership candidates Caroline Allen and Alexandra Phillip were dropped from the race because of their genitals. That's where positive discrimination gets us.

The Green party has an enforced gender split at the top. If the party leader is male, the deputy party leader must be female and visa-versa. It's the most robotic interpretation of gender politics imaginable, like getting a Hal from 2001 to read out Germaine Greer. What it's done, in this particular instance, is to rule out an all-female Green party leadership, which would have been a desirable and exciting outcome for feminists and non-feminists alike.

Instead, Allen and Phillip were dropped because they owned vaginas, while Will Duckworth and Richard Mallender remained in the race because they had penises. If that sounds childish, it's because we should put these rules in their plainest possible terms.

This is evidently unjust, although it is no more unjust than the men having to drop out if a man won the top job. Discrimination is always just that – discrimination. In all its circumstances it is against humanity's sense of natural justice. Redirecting it towards supposedly weaker sections of society does nothing to counteract our aversion to it.

In fact, it often cements a sense of grievance in the mainstream debate by creating an assumption that minorities or women in not in top positions because of their talent but because of their identity. This devalues the work of those who succeed on their own terms.

The debate over all-male panels is probably the liveliest area of debate over positive-discrimination. From comic book conventions to filmed sports analysis, debate has raged about whether sympathetic male commentators should boycott any panel without at least one female member.

At one recent political meeting I attended, the focus on a gender-neutral panel had depressing results. Two senior male political journalists with considerable experience attending similar events were placed with a parliamentary researcher and a woman who appeared to be invited because her marital status reflected the topic of debate. The obvious chasm in ability between the male and female panel members achieved the precise opposite of what gender equality sets out to do. It suggested the women were unable to perform at this level. Women were being represented, sure, but they were being unfairly represented.

The idea that women, or minorities, should be chosen by virtue of identity rather than talent is deeply offensive. It suggests they need a helping hand, a head start. They do not.

Worst of all, positive discrimination mistakes cause for effect. The representation of women in parliament or the boardroom or comedy panel shows is not the aim we are hoping to achieve, it is a sign of having achieved it. An equal world would have a 50/50 split in parliament, but just because you have a 50/50 split in parliament doesn't mean you have achieved an equal world.

Representative politics is deeply superficial. Under its assumptions, Margaret Thatcher was a victory for gender equality, when Britain's first female leader in fact put the clock back on women's rights. Under its application, equality and political correctness turn into dirty words, with the valid assumption that some people are advancing because of their identity and not their talents. Under its rules, the true abilities of talented women and minorities are branded suspect, because of their identity.

If campaigners really care about equal representation they should put all their efforts into allowing men and women to share parental leave when their children are born. That kind of policy allows us to minimise, as far as possible, the professional obstacles to the mother presented by childbirth. That's the sort of down and dirty, hammer and nails work that's needed to boost women's presence at the top levels of society. Positive discrimination is the equivalent of painting a pair of healthy lungs on a cancer patient.

Now the Green party has been denied the opportunity of an all-female leadership because of its demented gender rules, perhaps it will reappraise the way it wishes to organise itself. Hopefully, other organisations will take note. Women can do it on their own.


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