Discrimination and networks

In the last couple of days I’ve done one of my last PP interviews, and had a lively discussion with members of the NHS Employers Forum.  Both brought up the question of the effects of networks on people’s career prospects, and how difficult it is to draw the line between networks which are part of ‘normal’ working lives, and those which serve to exclude women.

My interviewee, Olivia, is 30ish and works for a global branding agency.  She told me how in her first years there a middle-aged manager had put together a group of younger male colleagues, who went whisky-drinking together.  Olivia saw this as a rather desperate attempt on his part to cling on to his departing youth;  but it seems also to have had a significantly divisive, you might even say discriminatory, effect on how information passed around the office, and on promotion prospects.  Happily, the central figure departed for their Tokyo office and gradually that particular network dissolved.  This is a classic example of an exclusionary form of social capital.

Exactly the same issue came up in the discussion with the NHS Forum.   We talked about how hard it is to draw the boundaries around direct and indirect discrimination – a topic on which the group had a great deal more expertise and experience than I do.  One very experienced member recounted how he had taken explicit action to counter the effect of the pub-going network on the prospects of Asian female staff, who were not going to go anywhere near the pub.  He aimed to make sure that the women all got as much information as the others (though it wasn’t quite clear to me how he actually did this).

It’s neither possible nor, arguably, desirable to try to prevent colleagues going to the pub together and talking about work there.  It seems to me (as a man, of course) one sign  of a healthy workplace if people want to do that rather than scattering immediately work is over, even though it isn’t accessible to all.  But there’s no doubt that it’s an in-group that discriminates (in the neutral sense, as well as possibly the negative sense) against some people.

I also heard the argument that most of the PP factors – confidence and childcare, as well as vertical networks – should be treated as forms of discrimination.  As I said, I’m not expert on the technical aspects of this.  But it seems to me that ‘discrimination’ should as far as possible be reserved for describing serious acts and practices for which someone should be held responsible.  Otherwise, behaviour which is clearly culpable gets lumped in with acts which are mainly a matter of lack of awareness.  I know this doesn’t solve the issue of where you draw the boundary, and I acknowledge the power of the argument for classifying them under discrimination, but I’d still try to separate out these factors.  It was certainly a discussion from which I learnt a lot.

Afterwards one member sent me a link to a brilliant Youtube number which does the business on different labels for men and women.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOjNcZvwjxI&feature=youtu.be .

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