People protesting for gender equality

Being positive

If we think sexual equality is a good principle, should we be more active in enabling women to advance?

Inequality between the sexes has a long history and has been tackled in earnest only in the last few decades. Many people would say that although progress has been made, for example with equal pay and sexual discrimination legislation, there is still much to be done. Should we be more active about this and practise positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination (or a close relative, affirmative action) means that active steps are taken to advance minority groups, with preference given to someone on the basis of an attribute, such as sex, that would previously have caused them to be discriminated against.

While the motivations may be honourable, positive discrimination can easily be seen as a form of double standards – where some individuals or groups do not need to achieve the standards required of others. This can lead to resentment and to devaluation of the people selected, who may be perceived as ‘substandard’.

The emphasis today therefore tends to be on removing barriers to participation, so there is equality of opportunity. This may take many forms, such as promotion of opportunities among particular groups – campaigns to encourage women to think about a career in engineering, for example.

It can be seen as a way of removing barriers that have inhibited these groups from advancing in the past, perhaps due to prejudice or lack of opportunity.

More generally, there is a greater focus on individuals and their qualities or potential, rather than their academic qualifications or other achievements.

Lead image:

Peter/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development