March 20, 2004 | Graham

Discrimination is not a sin, but HREOC is on the slippery slope

It used to be the case that being described as a “discriminating gentlemen” was a compliment, reflecting the fact that to be successful we all discriminate each and every day and hour of our lives. There is nothing wrong with discrimination.
There is a problem with inappropriate discrimination, which is where the law has stepped in. It has not been lawful to advertise for men to be bricklayers, or women to be receptionists for quite some time. Funny thing though, the majority of people in both those occupations tend to conform to the pre-existing sexual stereotype.
What has happened? Well, hopefully the legislation has had some educative role – employers now think twice about what qualifications are absolutely required of applicants – but in practical terms, if there is discrimination it has just gone underground and become invisible (a statement which relies on the assumption that there were men who wanted to be receptionists and women who wanted to be bricklayers).
I don’t have a problem with laws that say you should hire people in androgynous roles on the basis of merit rather than sex. Afterall, there was a time when a secretary was invariably male, a tradition which mostly continues today in roles such as “Secretary of State”. But what about situations where gender is in fact a qualification?
What has prompted these musings is the case of the Catholic Education Office in New South Wales. The CEO asked for an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) so that they could offer 12 teaching scholarships to men in an effort to increase the percentage of male teachers in their schools. It is well accepted that boys at school are suffering because there is a lack of male role models at school as most teachers these days are female. This is a case where discriminating between teachers on the basis of gender would appear to be a legitimate activity. Boys have a need which can only be filled by people of a particular gender.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) refused this application and the Federal Government has moved to change the legislation to allow it, much to the chagrin of the Labor Party and the Teachers’ Unions.
Now HREOC has approved a compromise proposal. The CEO will now offer 24 teaching scholarships – twelve for men and twelve for women. Fair enough you say, a non-discriminatory solution. Well, not quite. Read the HREOC press release here and then continue. This solution still needs an exemption from the act. Why? Because, even though it assumes equality, it is only in terms of numbers, not ability. The twelve men could be inferior in ability to the twelve women who missed out on scholarships by finishing just behind the twelve women who win them.
But there is a logical problem for HREOC here. Something is either discriminatory or not. I have a bit of trouble seeing the practical difference between the discrimination they are prepared to licence and the discrimination they are determined to ban. Given the tens of thousands of teachers in the NSW Catholic School system, the difference between 12/12 and 12 only is negligible in its effect on the system. I’m with the Federal Government on this one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with discrimination as long as it is done for the right reasons.

Posted by Graham at 5:20 pm | Comments Off on Discrimination is not a sin, but HREOC is on the slippery slope |
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