Monday, 25 January 2016

Does Guiding Discriminate?

A charge regularly levelled at us by some, is that Guiding discriminates. And of course it does. Always has.

It discriminates blatantly on gender, almost 100%. And on the grounds of age, given no under 4's are permitted to join, and there was until recently a bar on membership, and major restrictions on the roles which available to those over 65 – and there is still a strict minimum age for joining each section. So clear age discrimination too. And a lot of Guiding’s opportunities are restricted to members aged 14-26 only, sometimes for no obvious reason – more age discrimination. So no question about it, Guiding discriminates. Extensively, regularly, and across more than one category. It always has done, and it still does, perhaps more than ever. And it makes no apology either.

How serious a problem you consider that discrimination to be, however - depends on what your attitude to discrimination is. Dear me, have I shocked you by even suggesting that? Well, before you rush to reply, let’s pause for a moment – is all discrimination automatically and absolutely wrong in every possible case?

Of course, most people in a democratic country like ours would consider themselves 100% opposed to discrimination. But dig around a little, start asking a few awkward questions, and those who were once so certain start to find some niggly wee exceptions. For instance, should a belief in individual freedom and liberty really include the freedom to carry out activities that are illegal, or which may involve causing unwanted harm to others, or which will cause major damage to the environment, or which will cause damage to other people’s property? If you were a strict ‘100% believer’ then your answer to all of those would have to be an automatic yes, in every case and regardless. It would mean that you couldn’t choose to exclude those who commit acts of any type that, on consideration, you might feel shouldn’t be permitted – not if you’re 100% opposed to all discrimination, you can’t. Yes, immediately you consider discrimination and civil liberties, you can find yourself wandering into some awfully grey areas, and starting to make exceptions. Perhaps even the most liberal of us is more likely to be opposed to discrimination in 95%, or 98% of cases, than quite the full 100%?

And after that comes the question ‘Can there be such a thing as positive discrimination?’ Or must encouraging/favouring one group automatically mean discriminating against those who are not receiving the encouragement/favouring?

There was a time when society demanded that almost all clubs and societies be single-gender. Mixing between the genders was considered inappropriate other than in the most carefully-managed of circumstances, so it was easier to have separate clubs than tangle with the complex proprieties. Whether that was unfair discrimination to either gender - would depend on whether there was equal access to similar/equivalent facilities for each gender, and whether the members and potential members all wished to have their separate clubs. After all, for there to be unfair discrimination, there first has to be someone who believes they are being discriminated against. If everyone is entirely happy about separate clubs, then there is no unfairness, and thus no unfair discrimination. There is only discrimination the moment one person feels they are being discriminated against . . .

Over time, some of the single-gender clubs opted to become mixed, some didn’t. Of those that didn’t, reasons tended to be either that the majority of members wanted to retain single-gender membership, or there was a lack of demand from those affected by the single-gender status – if no-one of the opposite gender had ever sought membership, the question had never arisen. And a club ‘going open’ wouldn’t automatically result in a significant change in the membership balance unless the activities the particular club carried out were ones which in themselves attracted a mixed membership. Of those clubs that did go from single-gender to open, it tended to either be a case of viability (if there weren’t enough members to keep two single-gender clubs open, then merger could create one viable club for all, rather than both clubs closing leaving no club for anyone), or sharing of facilities (does it make sense to have the expense of 2 clubs each with separate premises, stocks of equipment, training facilities/sessions and administration)? And if the aim is to open a single-gender club to being mixed, it’s not enough just to say ‘the other lot can join now’ or to stick some new toilets and changing rooms in the clubhouse building – it means revisiting every aspect of the club to make sure it is not just grudgingly accepting, but is fully welcoming, and that all opportunities are genuinely and equally open to all members, not just theoretically so.

In these modern times, with the increasing numbers of mixed clubs, some of the few remaining single-gender clubs of various sorts have come under pressure to open their membership. Usually, the reason given for pressuring change is lack of equal access to facilities. In golf and bowls clubs we see arguments about restricted playing times for lady members, or lack of access to some parts of the playing facilities or clubhouse. So it isn’t objection to the fact that separate clubs exist, but an objection to any restrictions on access to facilities which disadvantage one group of members as compared to another. It’s not the principle of the clubs that’s objected to, it’s the details that decide whether there is unfair discrimination or not.

We live in an era when the phrase ‘positive discrimination’ is bandied about. We regularly hear in the media about efforts to try to increase representation in various areas where the membership does not reflect average diversity in the surrounding population. And these special efforts are always painted as a positive thing – as breaking glass ceilings, as making public bodies more representative, etc. Any voices that question whether discrimination can ever be universally ‘positive’ - are rarely heard, and anyone who dares ask the question risks being accused of trying to block change, and keep things in the ‘dark ages’. But if there are 12 jobs available, and a rule states that at least ¼ must go to a particular category of applicant, then that means that the firm cannot necessarily choose the best 12 applicants - and that some candidates who were in the top 12 on merit may not get a job, just because they don’t happen to be in the category with the guaranteed quota – while some of those 3 protected places may go to people who did not come anywhere near the top 12. So positive discrimination for some – may automatically mean negative discrimination for others?

Some have asked the question, can clubs such as Guiding continue to keep their single-gender status in the longer term?

The most commonly-used argument in Guiding is that it’s fine for Guiding to be single-gender - because that’s what the members want. Yet, if we look at countries which have had discrimination by gender, ethnicity/caste, class or other criteria, the most common reason they give/gave was that it's what the beneficiaries of the policy wanted. So by itself, I don’t see ‘because the girls want a girls-only space’ as a justifiable reason to give for barring boys and men from most roles in Guiding. It’s almost saying ‘we want to continue discriminating - because it means we get the better deal’.

I’d rather see factual reasons used – apart from anything else, because there are several! Educational studies have shown that although boys can achieve more in a mixed environment, girls achieve significantly more educationally in a single-gender environment. Studies of sport and activity show that girls are more likely to do exercise, more frequently and for longer, in a single-gender environment than in a mixed one. It’s proven that girls develop leadership skills more effectively in a single-gender environment where they are able to step into leadership roles without competing with boys to do so. So those are all areas where girls can benefit from a single-gender environment – without actively disadvantaging boys. Are those, perhaps, rare examples of discrimination not being negative? Or not? Either way, they are more valid and fact-based arguments to use than ‘because we want to’.

In theory, we are also better-able to attract girls from certain ethnic/religious backgrounds into Guiding because of our single-gender status, whereas their parents would not be as comfortable for them to join a mixed club. But, although that’s quite possibly true in theory – in practice, is Guiding’s record of reaching out to a wide cross-section of ethnic groups actually something to boast about? Do we really have thriving units in all parts of town? Are we really reaching all the girls in the community whatever their ethnicity or cultural background and ensuring all know what we have to offer? I’d suggest one glance at most units’ member lists in comparison to the local school rolls, would make it clear we’re not, and the fact that a wider range of girls could join (but don’t) is not something we can take any real pride yet. It needs a lot more work done both to reach out to all parts of the country and explain what we have to offer – and to educate the Leaders on what steps they could take to ensure their units were genuinely open, welcoming and inclusive of all cultural/faith needs, and avoid incorrect assumptions or faux pas. There’s a lot more to it than just offering a hijab among the uniform options . . .

So I asked the question “does Guiding discriminate?” And the answer is “of course it does.” There’s no doubt about it, it discriminates constantly. But the question we actually have to ask, is, “is the fact that Guiding actively discriminates a problem?”

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