Hamilton Spectator

Tuesday, March 17, 1992


Why Ontario's employment equity plan is unworkable

© Charles Maurer

Second of three parts

The Ontario government is promising to pass legislation on employment equity based on a recent discussion paper published by Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, Ontario's Employment Equity Commissioner. Ms Westmoreland-Traore and the government propose that employers shall be required to set 'numerical goals and timetables' -- quotas -- for hiring and promoting 'aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, racial minorities' and women.

Yesterday I showed that quotas are iniquitious and that similar legislation has not worked in the United States. Today I will show that Ms Westmoreland-Traore's particular proposals are conceptually incoherent and unworkable.

Defining groups

To define a quota, the first thing you need to do is define your groups. Let's look at the groups that Ms Westmoreland-Traore has defined.

One is straighforward: women.

An 'aboriginal person', in theory, is also easy to discern. All you need do is consult genealogies to learn if his ancestors were here at the time of Jacques Cartier.

But how many ancestors; all of them or just those on his mother's or father's side? How many quarters form an aboriginal? How many sixteenths? In the United States, treaty Indians and the government have tried to answer this for a hundred years and failed.

Yet defining an aboriginal person is simplicity itself compared to defining a 'racial minority.' School books used to teach -- perhaps they still do -- that three races form humanity, the negroid, caucasoid, and mongoloid races: blacks, whites and Asians. Many people may still believe this but professionals in the field -- anthropologists -- call it nonsense.

'There is no generally accepted definition of biological race,' said Dr. Shelley Saunders, an anthropologist at McMaster University. 'Many anthropologists say biological races do not exist.'

Dr. David Counts, chair of the department, told me the same thing. 'We don't use the term.'

What non-anthropologists mean by race has little to do with biology. Dr. Harvey Feit is another professor of anthropology at McMaster. His explanation is somewhat dry but clear.

'The popular conception is that a race is a group that is in some obvious way biologically connected. But the 'biological' connections that people see are not biological. They come more from language and physical proximity and popular misconceptions of how physical appearance is determined by biology.'

In short, race is defined not by reality but by stereotypes.

It is clear from Ms Westmoreland-Traore's proposal that she deplores racial stereotypes. So she should, for they are largely if not mostly nonsense.

But notice the contradiction here. People define 'race' not by biology but by stereotypes. Ms Westmoreland-Traore deplores these stereotypes as harmful and wants to break them down. Yet simultaneously she wants to define 'race' in law, which means canonizing those stereotypes in law.

If you base a law on a logical absurdity like this, you end up with absurdities mandated by law. For example, consider my friends Hong and Colin. Both belong to a highly visible minority: both are Chinese (although a Chinese would say that Hong and Colin differ racially and would name different ethnic groups in China).

Hong immigrated as an adult, had little schooling and speaks little English; Colin was born here and has a master's degree in engineering physics. Hong works on and off as a sales clerk; Colin manages a computer network at McMaster University. Hong typifies poor immigrants from most countries; Colin typifies their children. The immigrants themselves are over-represented in low-level jobs; their children are over-represented in high-level jobs.

There is no reason whatsoever to lump together Hong and Colin for employment quotas. Indeed, it would be silly. It would acting on a stereotype of slanted eyes that obscures rather than reflects reality. Yet this is what Ms Westmoreland-Traore proposes to do.

Defining disability

Ms Westmoreland-Traore's last category, the disabled, is even more problematic.

A disability can be defined only in relation to a task. Blind folks are disabled from trying to maintain books of accounts but many can see well enough to dig a ditch. A paraplegic is disabled from trying to dig a ditch but not when keeping books. A puny and innumerate man who is whole and healthy would be disabled from trying either to dig a ditch or to keep accounts.

Ms Westmoreland-Traore would force an employer to hire a certain number of 'disabled.' Taken literally, this means that she would force an employer to hire a certain number of people to do jobs which they cannot do. But Ms Westmoreland-Traore expects an employer to hire only the able disabled, a contradiction in terms.

This is not merely semantic sloppiness, it is a conceptual confusion that guarantees the law could not work as intended.

My nurseryman has 10 employees so he might be covered by the law. His head man -- let's call him Joe -- is so dyslexic that he cannot read a book. Dyslexia like this can be a severe handicap but it is not for many jobs including gardening.

If you asked Joe whether he is disabled, he might tell you yes, he could not study landscape architecture in university -- or he might laugh at you. He is the foreman, after all.

Similarly, if you asked the nurseryman whether Joe is disabled, he would laugh -- until he learned that he has a quota for the disabled. Then, to meet his quota for disabled people, he would define Joe's dyslexia as a problem, with the result that the truly handicapped -- the mentally retarded, the deaf and the blind -- would continue not to be employed.

Although several of Ms Westmoreland-Traore's designated groups are undefinable, she nevertheless expects employers to report regularly to the government how many of each of them they have hired. Moreover, to establsh and monitor quotas on promotion, she expects employers to report data describing the jobs of the people in these groups. To do the latter she offers for discussion two approaches. Neither can work.

Monitoring salaries

The simpler of the two (and hence the one businesses prefer) is just to report salaries. But an individual's qualifications and competence will usually affect his or her earnings more than sex or skin. To base a promotion quota on salaries alone is to say to an employer, 'We require you to pay a certain number of people as much as you are paying others whether they can do a comparable job or not.'

(Ms Westmoreland-Traore might have proposed collecting data on qualifications and competence as well but she was right not to. Formal qualifications are difficult enough to compare -- someone's first-class bachelor's degree from Oxford, for instance, is usually equivalent to a master's from a Canadian university -- but competence is more important and is even harder to compare. A photographer might be wonderful with buildings but awful with people.)

Not only would salaries alone provide too little information, basing quotas on them could be counterproductive. Consider a masonry contractor hiring hod carriers to expand his crews for the summer plus some office staff to help with the seasonal crush. He pays $10 an hour. Many men and a few women apply. As would probably be the case, the strongest are men.

The contractor is willing to hire female hod carriers but he would need to hire four women to haul as many bricks as three men, so he can't pay them more than $7.50 per hour. However, a quota based on earnings forces him to hire a certain number of women at $10. Hiring them as hod carriers would raise his costs so he hires them as a receptionist and file clerk instead -- putting them in exactly the sort of job ghetto that the quota was intended to break down.

Monitoring jobs

More sensible than classifying salaries -- at least on paper -- is classifying jobs. Every decade or so the government puts out a phone-book-sized list of standard job categories. Using this is Ms Westmoreland-Traore's other suggestion.

I looked at the current list, the Standard Occupational Classification. In it I, a freelance writer, have the same status as the editor of this newspaper. Half of the newspaper's editorial staff could be women but all of those women could be freelancers on contract. The report on employment equity would be the same as if all the editorial jobs were distributed equally.

The same is true with university teachers (part time instructors to full professors), the police (meter maids to the superintendent), the church (curate to archbishop) and others. True, these are extreme examples, but even relatively homogeneous categories could easily hide customary disparities. The class 'hospital administrators' includes the director of nursing, who is commonly a woman, and the medical director, who is almost always a man.

On top of this, when bureaucrats try to apply these categories in the work-a-day world, much of the time they get them wrong. The Americans have a similar book of occupational classification. The U.S. Bureau of the Census uses this book in a quarterly mini-census. UCLA Economist Finis Welch looked at how the bureau applied the categories to 5,000 people who had not changed jobs from one year to the next. The bureau choose the same category twice only 62 per cent of the time.

Figures with this degree of unreliability can provide useful information -- but only information on society as a whole. You cannot apply it to individual firms or individual people. Basing quotas on such figures would be as silly as saying, 'The stock market is going up; therefore buy General Motors.'

In sum, Ms Westmoreland-Traore proposes to define quotas for hiring and promoting people by applying inadequate data to undefinable, amorphous and often inappropriate groups. Even if quotas could be fair, these quotas would not be.

The government wants to polish up the details of this proposal and turn it into law. But as an intellectual structure, the proposal is comparable to a rusted out car with a blown engine and flat tires. All the polish in the world will not make it work.

We do need legislation for employment equity but not quotas. Tomorrow I will show what a more effective approach might be.


Consider this statement:

'Mary is a good woman pianist, you should hear her.'

If I were Mary, I would bristle -- and so would a feminist -- because it is a left-handed compliment implying that Mary is good for a woman but not as good as a man.

Ms Westmoreland-Traore would change just one word of that sentence: 'Mary is a good woman pianist, you should hire her.' The denigration remains.

For this reason, good female pianists -- and good male doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, professors, mechanics, architects, pilots, you name it -- commonly become upset at quotas based on sex.

At McMaster University, for instance, Dr. Barbara Ferrier is a professor of biochemistry. She is also the government-mandated employment equity officer for the university. She told me that the Dean of Science had a meeting of female science faculty to discuss reserving certain positions for women.

Younger and older women alike spoke out against it. No one spoke in favor. They did not want to miss a chance to strengthen the university by missing an exceptional man and they did not want people to perceive them and future female faculty as merely 'good woman scientists.'

Part I: the proposed plan is unfair
Part III: an alternative