Issues of Equal Opportunity (EO) in employment have been dealt with in varying ways throughout Australia’s history. This paper will discuss the meaning of EO, and how the terms ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ are an important aspect of understanding how EO can be interpreted differently within the workplace. This discussion will also include the theories behind equality, such as the liberal view, and the radical view of equality, the paper will then go on to discuss the merits and criticisms of some of the legislative approaches implemented in an attempt to achieve EO in employment.
The argument will be presented that while legislation such as Affirmative Action (AA) and anti-discrimination laws have had their pitfalls, they have also had merit in the sense that it has required organisations to be more accountable in relation to providing EO in employment. The paper will then go onto discuss the managing diversity (MD) approaches that have been adopted by various organisations, primarily discussing the business case of the managing diversity approach, and how it suggests that diversity in the workforce can be advantageous to an organisation.
Ultimately this discussion will conclude as to whether a mix of legislative approaches and the non legislative managing diversity approach is appropriate to achieving EO in employment. There are some varying definitions for Equal Opportunity, for example Kirton and Greene define Equal Opportunity as the following, ‘EO exists when all individuals are freely able to compete for social rewards’ (Kirton and Greene 2005 p. 115).
The EOWA(Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency) website defines EO as “all employees have equal access to the opportunities that are available at work, this means all employees are treated with fairness and respect in that they’re not subject to discrimination or harassment in the workplace” (EOWA web site2006e). To achieve EO in employment, there are two key differing concepts that underline how organisations interpret EO in their particular workplace, those two concepts are equity and equality.
According to French and Maconachie (2004) Equity basically means the distribution of rewards are based on individual inputs, in contrast, equality refers to distribution being based on the value of individuals whereby regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or the fact they have a disability have the right to equally benefit in benefits or burdens. After analysing the two definitions presented, it would be reasonable to conclude that achieving equality in the workplace would be the best possible option for organisations to achieve EO in employment.
According to Jewson and Mason (1986), those who support the liberal view believe EO exists when all individuals are freely enabled to equally compete for rewards. This definition is supported by Thornton (1990) who states ‘“starting point and factors such as race or sex will not hinder the process unfairly” (Thornton, 1990 p. 10). Jewson and Mason then go onto argue that it is the duty of the organisation to ensure that ‘rules of the competition’ are not discriminatory and to ensure the policies they implement are enforced on all.
Therefore according to Thornton (1990) under the liberal view, EO will result in the most talented and skilled employees progressing through the ranks and succeed with promotions, financial bonuses etc. One of the main criticisms of the liberal view is in its implementation, Jewson and Mason (1986) present the argument that simply implementing formalised procedures aimed at ensuring the liberal view to EO is utilized does not guarantee its effectiveness. Jewson and Mason provide an example whereby a job may be advertised internally, but the qualifications specified may be set to suit a particular individual or group.
In contrast to the liberal view, the radical view is defined as “it seeks to intervene in workplace practices in order to achieve a fair distribution of rewards among employees, based on the moral worth and value” (Jewson and Mason, p. 315, 1986). In other words, the radical view is mainly concerned with the outcome, ie fairness in the distribution of rewards rather than fairness in procedures. AA was introduced into Australia with the aim of reducing gender discrimination and achieving EO in employment.
According to a EOWA report (EOWA, 2006b. ) the legislation of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 required organisations with more than 100 employees to report on an annual basis as to evaluate programs they are implementing in order to achieve gender equality in the workplace, and evaluating the effectiveness of the programs and actions they have undertaken to do so. It can be argued that the EOWA Act 1999 has had a minimal impact in relation to achieving EO in employment.
This evaluation is reinforced by Strachan et al (2004) who argue that the EOWA Act(1999) has lessened the role of senior management in achieving EEO, as the Affirmative Action Act (1986), legislation prior to the EOWA Act (1999) stipulated that a member of senior staff was required to ensure the goals and targets of the AA program were met, therefore showing that support for AA was demonstrated at a senior level and therefore adequate resources were provided in order to achieve the goals of the AA program, and ultimately provide an effective means in achieving EO in employment (Strachan et al 2004).
So the major criticism of the current EOWA Act of 1999 is that the requirement of senior management being required to ensure the goals of the particular AA program were achieved is no longer the case, therefore resources may not be adequately provided to truly see the intended benefits such as gender equality from the AA programs.
A further criticism of the EOWA Act was the removal of the goals and targets by which the progress of the AA program could be measured (Strachan et al, 2004). Consequently this has limited the effectiveness of this particular legislation, as the collection of employment statistics has weakened, and there is more emphasis placed on management decisions, and reduced direction from the legislation (Strachan et al 2004).
From these arguments it can be concurred that the EOWA Act (1999) is limited in its effectiveness in achieving EO in employment in comparison to its predecessor, the Affirmative Action Act of 1986, as the current legislation does not require the influence of senior management to execute the program, therefore in the case of adequate resources not being provided, the intended benefits of the AA program, i. e. achieving gender equality etc cannot be achieved.
Anti -Discrimination Legislation has been implemented to protect employees from being discriminated based on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy and prohibits sexual harassment (Strachan et al 2007). Some examples of anti -discrimination legislation include the Sex discrimination Act (1984), Racial Discrimination Act (1975), Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and Age Discrimination Act (2004) (Strachan et al 2007). The implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation has been effective in chieving EO in employment in the fact that the legislation provides employees with a secure set of guidelines in guarding against discrimination within the workplace and also the wider community (Strachan et al 2007). However, a limitation of anti-discrimination legislation as a means to achieve EO in employment is highlighted by Strachan et al (2004) who raise the argument that legislation applies to all employees who are assumed to be equal but ignores the fact that people are different through social advantages, power and expectations.
Consequently Anti-discrimination legislation may act as a disadvantage towards employees who differ to white, physical and work-abled males. Managing diversity approaches have the main aim of improving interpersonal and group communication and relationships within the workplace (Agocs and Burr 1996). One of the major arguments supporting the implementation of managing diversity programs aimed at achieving EO in employment, and that of the business case. The business case in simple terms is utilising the diversity in an organisations workforce to gain competitive advantage.
This notion is reinforced by Strachan et al (2007) which argues MD programs have the ability to increase the chance to attract a wider range of talented employees in a competitive job market, reduce staff turnover, reduce absenteeism, enhanced staff motivation resulting in increased productivity therefore playing a major role in providing a competitive edge for the organisation. This argument is reinforced by Illes (1995) who also argues that MD approach plays a major role in reducing turnover, absenteeism and improves customer service and sales to minority groups (Iles 1995).
In terms of providing equality in the workplace, it is argued that to ensure MD initiatives achieve EO within the workplace, it is important that the MD program changes the organisations philosophy and culture to help achieve EO for minorities and women in the workplace. This argument is reinforced by Mighty (1991, p. 67) who states that” managing diversity approaches should be a broad organisational change effort that involves changing individuals attitudes and behaviours, while at the same time changing the organisation’s philosophy and culture, and consequently its structures and policies” Mighty(1991, p. 7). Despite the arguments in support for MD approaches, there has also been a considerable amount of criticism of the interventions ability to achieve EO in the workplace. One of the main criticisms of the MD intervention, is the lack of accountability if an organisation adopts a MD program, this argument is reinforced by Bacchi (2000) who argues that MD programs attempts to hide inequalities under the umbrella of “difference” and bypasses fundamental equity programs and social policy objectives.
Therefore for organisations who adopt MD programs there is no need for EEO legislation, this results in the reduction in scrutiny of business employment practices. Strachan et al (2004) provide a highly insightful discussion as to whether MD is an effective means of achieving EO in employment in comparison to EEO legislation, suggesting that although EEO legislation has its gaps, it did require organisations to be more accountable by forcing them to report on the progress they were making by means of a gender equity agenda, whereby the reports were subject to public scrutiny.
So although the MD approach may be beneficial from an organisations perspective in terms of assisting the business in gaining competitive advantage, the major issue in relation to EO in employment remains the fact that the MD approach hides the issue of inequality, and as Agocs and Burr(1996) argue that MD programs do not assist managers and employees in understanding the nature of discrimination, and in addition do not assist managers in identifying and removing the issues facing women, racial minorities etc.
This argument critiquing the MD approach is also reinforced by Morrison (1992) who claims that terms such as “racism”, “sexism”, “anti-racism”, “feminism”, and “discrimination” are rarely mentioned, instead Morrison argues that MD trainers focus on terms such as “diversity”, “multi-culturalism” etc (Morrison,1992, p. 4) Overall, it can be concluded that in order to achieve EO in employment, it is vital that organisations evaluate two critical steps. The first step is having the ability to define EO, and assessing the differences between equity and equality.
This paper has suggested that if organisations want to achieve EO in the workplace, then striving for equality would be the best way to do so, however this may not be the case for all organisations. The second critical step, after discussing AA, anti-discrimination legislation, and the MD approach, it can be concluded that in order for an organisation to effectively achieve EO in employment it may require them to have a combination of the three strategies. The MD approach is effective in the sense that it focuses on using diversity within the workforce to build a competitive advantage, an argument known as the business case.
The MD approach also has merit in the fact that it raises awareness of cultural diversity within the workplace and how this can work to the favour of an organisation. However, the issue with the MD approach is the fact that it does not completely achieve EO in employment, as it does not completely address the issue of inequalities that can occur in the workplace. In order to effectively achieve EO in employment legislation is also required to compliment MD initiatives, as it requires organisations to be accountable and to report on the progress they are making in ensuring equality is being achieved within the workplace.
AA in theory is a highly affective means to do so, however the EOWA Act (1999) does not really achieve what the legislation is designed for, as senior management are not required to be involved in the process, where as the Affirmative Action Act of 1986 required senior management to be heavily involved in ensuring goals and targets were met ensuring the full benefits of AA were realised.
Anti-discrimination legislation also plays a critical role in ensuring EO in employment, as it is designed to protect employees from being discriminated against, and also acts as a strong guideline for employees raising awareness of what constitutes discrimination, and that they can take action against those who discriminate against them. So after analysing the three approaches, this paper has come to the conclusion that to effectively achieve EO in employment, a combination of all three approaches is necessary. Reference List Agocs, C. and Burr, C. (1996) ‘ Employment equity, affirmative action and managing diversity: assessing the differences’, International Journal of Manpower, vol. 17, No 4/5 pp30-45 –Bacchi,C. (2000), “The seesaw effect: down goes affirmative action, up comes workplace diversity”, Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, Vol. 5 No 2, pp. 64-83 –EOWA(2006b), “What is a workplace program? ”, available at: www. eeo. gov. au/Developing _a _Workplace Program/What_is_a_Workplace_Program. asp (accessed 25th March 2011) EOWA(2006e) ‘‘Why equal opportunity matters’’, available at: www. eeo. gov. au/About_Equal_Opportunity/Why_Equal_Opportunity_Matters. asp (accessed 25th March 2011) –French, E. and Maconachie, G. (2004), “Managing equity: structure, policy and justice influences”, Women in Management Review, vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 98-108. –Iles,P. (1995), “Learning to work with difference”, Personnel Review,Vol. 24 No. 6, pp. 44-60 –Jewson, N. and Mason, D. (1986) ‘The theory and practice of equal opportunities policies: liberal and radical approaches’, Sociological Review,Vol. 4, No. 2, pp 307-34 –Kirton, G and Greene, A (2005) The Dynamics of Managing Diversity: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, Chapter 3. –Mighty, E. J. (1991), “Valuing workforce diversity: a model of organizational change”, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences,vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 64-71 –Morrison, A. (1992), The New Leaders: Guidelines on Leadership Diversity in America, Jossey- Bass, San Francisco, CA. –Strachan, G. Burgess, J. and Sullivan, A. 2004) ‘Affirmative action or managing diversity:what is the future of equal opportunity policies in organisations? ’, Women in Management Review, vol. 19, No. 4 pp196-204 –Strachan, G. Burgess, J. and Henderson, L. (2007) ‘Equal employment opportunity legislation and policies: the Australian experience’, Equal Opportunities International, vol. 26, no. 6 pp525-540 –Thornton, M (1990) ‘The elusiveness of equality’, in The Liberal Promise: Anti- discrimination legislation in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp. 9-23.