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4 myths about affirmative action for gender equity

Written by: Sophie Warwick

Affirmative action has become one of the most polarizing phrases in the equity, diversity, and inclusion world. The term is often misunderstood and sometimes misused. Affirmative action is the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.

Favouring. This is the route of the controversy. There is often a misconception that there is a finite amount of space available for us to exist and excel in and if some take more, it reduces the space available to those around them. For example, when support is provided to a woman in a male-dominated office to help combat bias, it can sometimes be perceived as taking space from the men around her. However, the intent of the use of favouring is to recognize the inequities experienced by groups who have faced discrimination and break down those barriers to provide them ultimately with the same opportunity as those in the majority group. In other words, everyone gets their own space.

If “favouring” in the same definition were replaced by “correcting oppression experienced by” it becomes much more universally digestible. I wholeheartedly believe gender equity, and equity for any group, can’t be achieved without some form of affirmative action because if we don’t actively correct our biases, we will make the same decisions we have in the past. However, affirmative action can take many forms that can be tailored to the needs of that group or the organization they’re operating in. Here are 4 common myths about affirmative action.

1. Compromising on performance. Affirmative action does not mean hiring someone less capable for a role solely because they identify with a particular group. It instead means implementing policies to limit bias and ensure that all candidates are being provided equitable opportunity. Since we tend to see potential in those like us, and capability in those dissimilar to us, when interviewing candidates, we’ll see shinier futures for individuals we see ourselves in. In contrast, we may inadvertently devalue an equal, or greater, candidate who looks or sounds different than us.

Setting a minimum number of interviewers who are women can help disrupt gender bias in hiring and ensure all candidates are provided equitable consideration. It doesn’t mean that men are biased and women aren’t. Everyone is biased. I am biased and you are biased. When a diverse group of people are making decisions together, their biases conflict instead of compliment each other, which helps them in making more pragmatic decisions less influenced by personal experience.

2. Hiring a specific number of people from a particular group. Affirmative action can mean setting a gender quota for a minimum number of hires. This action is typically suited for a team or employer who is heavily dominated by one gender and may feel a more urgent need to implement policies to increase the diversity in perspectives. I see this more often in companies that have hired very similar candidates for an extended period – similar hobbies, communication styles, behaviour etc. – and become vulnerable to innovative resistance fueled by uniformity. If we look at the history of Board of Directors in the corporate world, they have been striving for gender equity since the 1990’s. Fast forward 20 years later, and women hold just 16.9% of Board seats globally (Deloitte’s Global Women in the Boardroom report). While wanting to make change matters, unless we set guardrails to course correct our biases, we will continue to make the same decisions and choose the same candidates as we have in the past. This is an example where quotas matter.

However, affirmative action can also take the form of a minimum number of resumes from women before a posting is closed, a target gender ratio of candidates selected for interviews, or a minimum number of women’s names put forward for upcoming promotions. It is a tool used to breakdown barriers and doesn’t always need to be as finite as hiring or promoting a specific number of women.

3. Holding someone deserving back to make room for others. Affirmative action often has the perception that if two identical candidate's names are on the table then the woman will be selected. I don’t generally believe this is a tangible scenario that a hiring manager would find themselves in. Who are these identical candidates? Are they fraternal twins of different genders who went to the same school with all the same co-ops? Unlikely. Additionally, affirmative action is about breaking down barriers for individuals who’ve experienced discrimination – it is not about holding anyone back.

If you analyzed the succession of a random sample of employees as they progressed towards a manager level, you will typically find that women progress more slowly. For example, a study by McKinsey found that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women were promoted. This is a result of unconscious bias and a lack of policy around gender equity and inclusion. I would instead argue that we should view affirmative action as catching up someone who was held back because of their gender, rather than holding someone else back.

4. Prolonging the recruitment period. Affirmative action does require upfront work to ensure that once recruitment for a role begins, there is enough diversity within the group to meet the desired interviewee targets. There is more pressure than ever to fill positions quickly and add resourcing to overburdened and fatigued teams. However, there is often fear, specifically during the great resignation, that any stipulations on the diversity of the candidates will unnecessarily delay filling the role.

If the internal work is done to share company policies on gender equity on websites and social channels, source creative talent pools, review gendered language in job postings, build relationships with professional women’s groups, and many more initiatives that build gender inclusivity in the workplace, then setting targets for diversity within a candidate pool should not prolong the recruitment period. If a job is posted and very few women are applying, it is not the affirmative action that is delaying the recruitment of top women talent, it’s a lack of policy around equity and inclusion for women in the workplace. Additionally, more diverse teams create companies with better financial performance, more innovation and longer-term sustainability – so the incremental effort is worth it.


There are many ways to achieve gender equity in the workplace and the needs of each employer are unique. You may be looking to ensure a minimum number of women’s names are put forward for annual promotions, or you may want to ensure gender representation of interviewed candidates for all open roles. We advise companies on custom policies and initiatives to achieve those goals. If you need support in retaining top talent, specifically women, email us at to book an introductory session today.



Company, M. &. (2021, September 27). McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from Women in the Workplace 2021:


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