Affirmative Action: A Defence


The only barrier to success is an individual’s own motivation and effort. So it goes. In a liberal democracy like New Zealand, equality is formally entrenched in the law. If you fail to be successful and reach equal status to others, then it must be down to your own laziness or other poor choices you have made.

Based on a mix of classical liberalism, meritocratic principles, and individualism, this idea motivates beneficiary bashers and affirmative action objectors. This was evidenced in the public outcry over Labour’s announcement that it would introduce a quota system to ensure a 50/50 split of men and women MPs. It’s what encourages people to think we don’t need feminism anymore, or that awarding Maori their own tertiary scholarships is ‘reverse racism’.

Often when I hear these opinions expressed in conversation, I become too overwhelmed to provide a coherent response. I forget that I’ve taken enough political and social theory papers to be sufficiently equipped to take on these misguided views. So, I thought I’d write a blog post, using Labour’s quota policy as a bit of a case study, to provide a systematic response to those who reject affirmative action. You may think this is a very moderate position to argue, and I would agree, but based on the viewpoints I’ve heard and read recently, one would think I was arguing for something incredibly radical (‘PC gone mad!’) and I’m therefore motivated to address it.


Prior to its leadership election last year, Labour announced that it would like to set targets to ensure that women MPs made up 50% of their caucus by 2017. This would involve having some electorate seats where only women candidates could run. Quota systems have been introduced in other countries (the United Kingdom, for example) and are a response to the underrepresentation of women in politics — women make up 51% of the population in NZ, yet they count for only 31% of our MPs. This quota system was quickly framed in negative terms (by both media personnel and politicians) and given the label ‘The Man Ban’. Many thought it was outrageous discrimination against men that there could be a few electorates in the country where male candidates couldn’t run.

The opposition to the quota system was widespread across the political spectrum with many supporters and members within the Labour Party expressing their distaste for the policy.

Former Labour candidate Josie Pagani wrote that:

 “A strong women candidate does not need the handicap of people thinking she has only been selected because she is a woman, not because she is qualified. Quotas and bans say that Labour women are not good enough to be selected ahead of men on our merits. […] We are not helpless dearies who need a bit of a leg up from a fixed race.” [1]

This looks ideologically very similar to the arguments raised by right-wing bloggers David Farrar and Cameron Slater:

“So this is a fully-fledged quota for women. No more having to compete on merit. If Labour looks to get 50 MPs, then at least 23 of them in 2014 must be women, and from 2017 at least half of them must be women… Labour wants electorates to be able to ban men from even seeking selection for that seat. I don’t think even the Greens are that deranged”  [2] *Bold my own.

And from Cameron Slater at Whaleoil [3]:


You don’t have to look far to see that the debate was framed as ‘merit vs. sex’ in the media, giving the public a skewed sense of what a quota system means by presenting a misleading either/or scenario.



…Well, that might be true if it weren’t for the myriad of arbitrary factors that contribute to one’s success, including the qualities attributed to you through the ‘accident of birth’*, history and socialisation.

Here’s an example of how these factors combine to create privilege:

I am a successful student who gets good grades, and has thus been offered opportunities and relationships with academics at university. My sister is experiencing the same success in her Biology postgrad. We work hard to get those grades, so some might say that we deserve the success that comes with it. Sure, but we also need to acknowledge that we are, in so many ways, predisposed to get good grades before motivation or effort is even considered.

How is this the case? Well, we’re white, we are able-bodied, we were born in a developed country to middle-income parents. Both our parents have postgraduate degrees, so we have grown up in an environment where books are in abundance and a love for learning is expected. The list goes on: we were well-fed, given opportunities to join extra curricular activities, well-clothed etc. In those regards, we are therefore incredibly privileged. Our society rewards whiteness, it rewards those who are able-bodied, it rewards those who aren’t poor, and it rewards those who have what society has deemed ‘ideal’ parents. It creates stigma around those who do not conform to those ideals and therefore discriminates against them. Those who are born into less privileged circumstances therefore have to work so much harder than my sister and I do in order to get good grades — that’s if they are even provided with the opportunity to enter into tertiary education.

ImageYou do not choose your parents, their educational background and their socio-economic group, nor do you choose your race, or your country of birth. You do not choose the values of the society you were born into, and nor do you choose the history and traditions that have shaped those values. Legal barriers are not the only barriers to success. Equality under the law — although a very important first step — doesn’t always eventuate into real, felt equality.


Most of the news articles addressed the women’s quota as an ‘either/or’ issue. Either you elect candidates on their merit, or you elect them on their biological sex. This suggests that a quota system is an act of tokenism and incapable MPs will be selected on their sex alone. This is completely unfounded: there are plenty of capable women out there, but affirmative action policies are necessary to allow those women to overcome arbitrary non-legal barriers. They are needed because women of equal motivation and effort to their male counterparts have to work so much harder to be taken seriously in the male-dominated political arena.


Arbitrary barriers also discriminate against men who want to pursue careers in fields that have been gendered as ‘feminine’ — such as early childhood education. There is therefore a shortage of men in these careers: men make up only 2% of early childhood educators in New Zealand. Recently, there’s been an affirmative action push, in the form of scholarships, invitation grants, and ‘gifts’, to encourage more men into studying early childhood education. I think this is a great initiative and, hypocritically, so did the news media.

Image Image


News articles framed the affirmative action in a positive way, using words like: ‘encourage’, ‘invitation’ and ‘men wanted’. The interview on the Breakfast piece opens with the host stating:

“We have had a huge response to this this morning about how people would like to see more men in early childhood education.” [5]

Compare this with the media coverage of Labour’s quota policy and the ‘Man Ban’ label. Is this not hypocrisy? Why is one viewed positively and the other negatively?


Often we hear politicians talking about how other parties are ‘kicking down the ladder’ or ‘pulling up the ladder behind them’. This is a statement about social mobility. Those with a thinner, more minimalistic, and moderate theory of distributive justice than me (I subscribe to a very extensive theory), will argue that inequalities of outcome are fine so long as there’s an opportunity for upward mobility for those who are worst off in society. In other words: the ladder ought to be there for those who want to climb it.

Social mobility rates in NZ are appalling. OECD data shows that New Zealand has a very strong correlation between low educational outcomes and socio-economic background.  It also shows that people in low socio-economic groups, when surveyed 5 years later, had experienced little to no improvement in their financial situation [6]. Affirmative action policies are just one way of improving social mobility. They are not radical; they still operate within a competitive capitalist framework. Women will need to enrol as candidates and campaign for support, not find themselves plucked off the street at random and placed in a parliamentary seat. Supporting affirmative action policies is nothing more than a moderate and basic step in trying to balance the unequal effects privilege has on the distribution of opportunities.













News articles on men in early childhood education:


* ‘Accident of Birth’ is Rawlsian lingo, so credit to John Rawls (a moderate liberal, so if he can acknowledge arbitrary factors, so should you!)

by Alex Edney-Browne

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