Growing up, I would have been considered a minority of sorts.
I’m a first-generation Australian who grew up in the working-class western suburbs of Melbourne and went to low-budget public schools.
My parents moved to this country in the 70s from Yugoslavia with little education, no grasp of English, and little money. They spent three decades doing backbreaking factory work to provide a better life for their young family.
Despite this inauspicious start, I studied hard, worked hard, and through a series of trials and errors, hustled my way into coveted gigs with the likes of EY, KPMG, and Macquarie Bank.
I then took a risk and threw it all away.
I spent the better part of a decade tirelessly building an innovation consultancy. We worked with almost 100 large brands across the globe, incubated 100 startups, and generated millions in top-line revenue. We were named one of Australia’s fastest growing new companies by the AFR in 2018. We received numerous write-ups in top-tier publications over the years. I wrote a handful of complementary books and grew our supporting podcast to over 1 million downloads.
We had, by all accounts, a great run for a small business.
As is custom to do as a business builder, I eventually sought an exit.
I pursued large management consulting firms as our first port of call.
I reached out to a big four firm’s digital team to explore a potential acquisition.
The initial response was overwhelmingly positive, with several lunches and meetings with senior partners stretching far beyond the originally allotted time.
I prepared numerous decks and a data room and had half a dozen meetings with senior partners.
The general consensus was that “we see you providing a wealth of value and thought leadership to the firm, and can help us build out our innovation practice”.
And then I received a text from one of the said partners.
“Got time for a chat?”
Naturally, I picked up the phone.
What followed left me shocked and bemused.
“So, the team loves you guys. We think you’re remarkable talents. We think you can be a key piece of what we’re trying to build, but there’s one problem…”
An I’m paraphrasing here… ‘you‘re not women’.
“We have diversity quotas at the partnership level, and can’t bring on any more men. I know it’s silly, but…”
This, despite the fact that we could, as they said, bring a ton of value to the firm?
This, despite the fact that with that value, we could create a whole lot of jobs, and you know, actually hire and develop more women for senior roles?
Some of the reasoning I heard on the phone bordered on insanity.
“Oh, we pushed three women through previously who otherwise wouldn’t have been promoted to partner, and they’ve done well” was used as justification.
Okay… three women in a firm of, what, 300,000? That’s 0.0001%.
Sounds like a solid sample size.
If we’re going to use weak anecdotal evidence, at least apply it across all of the variables.
And are we saying the women who did get pushed through performed well because of their gender?
Or might it have something to do with character attributes like conscientiousness, assertiveness, persistence, and taking personal responsibility for their life outcomes?
You know, attributes that most high-performers share.
When did we stop judging people, as Martin Luther King Jnr urged, by the content of their character and instead judge them by the content of their underpants?
Is this not just a form of reverse discrimination?
Is this not just a case of two wrongs not making a right?
The sad thing is it’s not just disadvantaging men.
It’s disadvantaging the firm. And it’s disadvantaging society.
When you put gender or color, or sexual orientation ahead of merit, organizations stand to suffer when it comes to decision-making and performance.
This will have a flow-on effect on company profit, employee bonuses, shareholder returns, the quality of client deliverables, the number of job openings, and with it, the downstream performance of the broader economy.
And when people are promoted for the wrong reasons — and it should be clear what those reasons are by now — it seeds resentment amongst both men and women who worked hard to get to the top.
It’s almost akin to promoting people based on length of tenure instead of performance, which has long plagued employee morale at many large organizations.
But it’s worse. At least tenure was earned — it required an investment of time and loyalty to the firm.
What we’re born as isn’t something we can earn. It just is.
Promoting people based on biological features also acts as a disincentive for people to work hard and do their best. “Why bother, when it’s all predetermined based on what we can see, not what we can’t?”
It shouldn’t matter what’s between your legs or what color your skin is.
Female, male, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, trans, AI.
What should matter is the quality of your work.
Yes, we should address systemic inequalities and aim to build fair promotion into the workplace.
Using diversity quotas does not address underlying systemic issues. It is a short-term band-aid solution that will only sow the seeds of resentment and ultimately backfire.
What needs to change is the way we develop and evaluate people so that the highest-potential and best performers rise to the top, irrespective of what they look like.
We shouldn’t be simply putting the shoe on the other foot and fighting discrimination with more discrimination, breeding resentment and hate along the way — most of which boils over into private conversations amongst men and resentful women and later manifests itself in all forms of passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace.
Just because you’re not hearing about this resentment on social media and in public forums — it doesn’t mean there is none. It’s just that most people are scared to voice their opinions in a world where being authentic and defying prevailing narratives are harshly penalized.
We should build fairness into the system by ensuring people are given the best opportunity to develop their skillsets and rise to the top so that when they are promoted, it’s based on merit and ability, and they ultimately go on to do a great job, benefiting both their company and society at large.
If we keep going down this path of affirmative action, in the long term, we’re ultimately going to create more problems than we solve.
PS. Sadly, when I circled back weeks later to scope out where things were, it seemed that the firm’s position had only hardened on discriminating against men.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.