Positive Discrimination / Affirmative Action As Alignment Of Expectations+ Ambitions With Talent+Potential

(in the context of the allocation of resources or employment) the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.

Oxford Languages

Affirmative action originally referred to a set of policies and practices preventing discrimination based on race, creed, colour and national origins. It now often refers to policies positively supporting members of disadvantaged or underrepresented groups that have previously suffered discrimination in areas such as education, employment and housing.


New Definition For Positive Discrimination / Affirmative Action

The definitions of positive discrimination (known as affirmative action in the U.S.A.) usually mention the groups that were previously discriminated against. The eligible groups are defined based on obvious external traits, such as race, gender or nationality. This the definition “by the process”. It creates many issues. The most apparent one is that those who lack the traits eligible for PD/AA become discriminated against, thus become candidates for PD in the nearby future. This creates a circular problem.

Let’s try and remedy by these issues by:

  • giving the definition “by the desired result” (as opposed to definition “by the process”);
  • define the groups that need PD/AA not by the external traits, but by their confidence, ambitions, talent and potential.

Positive discrimination is the practise or policy of favouring individuals whose confidence (self-perception, view of the future) is below the fair level that would be achieved if their confidence were in line with their talent, present or potential. It needs to be limited once the confidence and the competence of the individual are aligned (or close to being aligned), and later they could be used to maintain the alignment, but not to create the opposite bias by pushing the confidence of previously suppressed individual over what its objective value should be, thus avoiding a circular problem. Discrimination is wrong regardless of the direction it is applied.

Static Dunning-Kruger Curve

This definition is related to Dunning-Kruger curve. The difference is that the Dunning-Kruger curve seems to illustrate the progress of confidence with time, taking for granted that the objective skill, the true competence will increase with time.

In fact, we cannot take it for granted. For many, time stands still in this respect.

Many of those who have low competence and skill but high confidence will remain on the “mountain of incompetence”, possible reasons being the “I am good as I am, those who don’t appreciate it are just mean or discriminating” mantra. This can happen in any strata of the society, and mostly it is happening with the individuals whose communication circles are socially homogeneous:

  • The conservative strata could assume that their skill comes with their pedigree, and blame immigration and ill-designed social policies (taxes, positive discrimination), even low remuneration demands of their competitors for their failure,
  • The liberal strata could blame it on discrimination, “male privilege”, “white privilege”, “old boys clubs” etc.

On the other hand, those with genuine potential and, importantly, willingness to forsake fun and work hard to convert potential into confidence can be left behind. This is not imposter syndrome, but fear or reluctance to be an imposter, to aim to the place where one does not belong and would be accepted. This perception can be built by family and/or friends and/or media and society in general. It can be verbal:

  • “Don’t do this, it’s not for boys/girls/people like us!”
  • “Don’t read this book, don’t do mathematics, this is only for weirdos!”
  • “Don’t go there, they treat people like us very badly!”

Or it can be explicit, often when deciding on the education, one’s own or the one of a child:

  • Not spending enough time playing education games with a toddler because it’s pointless;
  • Don’t consider studying gender- or background-inappropriate subjects;
  • Don’t consider investing money or extra time, like several years to get a degree or a PhD, because nobody in the family has done it before.

Similar cultural reasons can stand on the way of the person’s progress even if the entry is made:

  • I should not disagree with a colleague or negotiate a salary, nice women don’t do this;
  • I could never fit into the management community with all their office politics and shouting;
  • If I am objectively brilliant at my job and I don’t get promoted, just wait and avoid conflicts at all costs.

In fact, the word “culture” seems to have substituted the words that describe previously discriminated against traits: “Believe me, I am not a racist, but their culture is so different”. Bamboo ceiling makes a great example: “People who have grown within Chinese culture are fabulous programmers and they work extremely hard but they cannot be good enough managers because of cultural differences”.

These obstacles can be created with good intentions, e.g. shielding the “different” person from wasting time, from a hostile environment, from other types of disappointment. In a well-organised environment, this shielding should be unnecessary provided the person’s competence/talent is adequate for the task. Unnecessary shielding is another form of discrimination; the best of intentions does not compensate for the loss of opportunity for the excessively shielded individual. The article

“What’s Holding Blacks Back?” by John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University (and incidentally a black person) explains it in detail in the case of the black Afro-American community.

The Old Definition of PD/AA is half correct

In most cases, this repression exists within the categories that used to be discriminated against. Thus, there is a good chance that most people whose confidence need to be propped with PD/AA are within the categories from the old definition: people of colour, women and other minorities. However, correlation does not imply causality. The resources available for PD/AA need to be deployed based on competence/confidence disparity, not on the features from the old definition alone.

How to straighten the new Dinning-Kruger Curve

How to achieve objectivity needed to define appropriate action? It is impossible to perfectly measuring competence; even well-calibrated IQ tests can yield very different results for the same individual. Measuring confidence in isolation is impossible in principle.

A system of tests seems to give the best possible approximation. The set of evaluation grades would give a proxy to competence measurement. And communication of the grades provides feedback necessary to boost confidence should there be grounds for the boost. The students should be communicated all other grades, but maybe without being told whom the other grades were attributed to.


There are a few concrete measures that could help:

  • Provide the set of objective evaluation criteria and make it known – transparency will eliminate the possibility of having an advantage by privileged access;
  • It is not offensive to say that a person with longer legs needs longer trousers. Thus allow more granular tests with some challenging problems in addition to trivial problems to be able to differentiate between capable and gifted;
  • Encouragement of ambitions need to be personal and consistent, not in the form of one-off events, standardized posters and speeches that lack creed for most people;
  • Reduce time availability-related barriers: online access to courses instead of in-person attendance, possibility to take tests/exams in a controlled environment when convenient, similar to Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi exams of Mandarin or a driving test;
  • In the modern world, decentralised systems perform and adapt better than state-imposed systems. Thus best to allow test decentralisation, maybe similar to what’s offered by Coursera;
  • Enable some form of decision decentralisation by involved parties. This should improve the quality of decisions. In addition, this will reduce the opportunities for power abuse, including bullying and harassment. Evaluations made by parties without stakes in the result are likely to be of lesser quality because their effort is only backed up by diligence, not by self-interest;
  • Enable some form of upwards control and encourage rotation to eliminate/reduce/delay the action of Iron law of oligarchy;
  • Work with parents and guardians to advertise possibilities and role models to avoid family pressure;
  • Enable groups of like-minded individuals (including children) to allow for social interactions around their special interest subjects;
  • Make the tests anonymous for the evaluators to eliminate unconscious bias. Use several evaluators and possibly peer evaluation to avoid evaluator’s bias (e.g. grades given to the tests checked before the evaluator had their lunch could be expected to be lower than the grades given after the lunch);
  • Allow accessing the information on the web during the test since it is (or should) be possible in real-life situations, to avoid giving an advantage to those who have more time to memorise more material, only to forget it soon after the test.


What about I.Q.?

I.Q. is an important factor, it can complement the tests but it cannot substitute them. This is because even the highest I.Q. is worthless without hard work, motivation aligned with the motivation of the project and intellectual integrity. And these qualities cannot be taken for granted. Neither of the latter qualities can be measured in isolation, but only through the overall tests.

However, I.Q. tests are brilliant in identifying individuals with great cognitive skills who have dyslexia, who tend to “fall through” standard teaching system and standard texts. Or, rather, one should consider changing the format of information presentation, keep it to the point, add all relevant graphs and illustrations instead of endless poorly organised bedsheets of text. This would be of tremendous help for dyslexic people, but also save time and effort of people whose perception of information is the standard one.

Is it one-dimensional?

Of course not, the illustration is one-dimensional because of the flatness of the screens. All relevant “dimensions” can be captured through the multitude of assessments. This should work especially well if we allow for decentralised system.

What if someone does not want to live up to their potential?

This is a valid choice. However, one should be able to reach the potential later in life should one want to. Nancy Pelosi was a housewife until the age of 47, when she first run for the seat in the Congress. Pelosi won, later becoming the highest-ranking (as of 2020) woman elected official in United States history. Arguably, she would not be able to do it without her connections in the Democratic party and her family’s wealth. While our new positive discrimination is unlikely to offer similar options, it could shift the status quo in this direction.

What about diversity?

After suggesting a new definition of PD/AA, let’s suggest an update for another definition: diversity is not about external attributes, but about the mind. Complex tasks of modern times require many mental qualities: creativity, rigour, persistence, ability to switch between many short term tasks, ability to work on long-term projects without burnout, ability to work with large amounts of written information, communication, humour and many more. Extending access to all willing candidates allows making better matches between tasks and individuals’ capacities.

Now that humanity rapidly exists the stage where human manual labour was in great demand, more and more work is the work of the mind. The manual part of the work can be outsourced to machines. The mind-centric definition of diversity should befit this new reality.

Case Study: Women In STEM


It is universally acknowledged that in the first world countries fewer women than men work in STEM field. We could wonder if this is because of “nature” (natural predispositions) or “nurture” (parental and social influence). Many researchers have studied the subject within these countries, and the results are contradictory.

Luckily, there is a simple way to get an answer – consider countries with different cultures, and different social influences, and see the gender ratio in STEM.

STEM gender gap was smaller in countries like Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman than in the U.S.— in other words, men still made up the majority of STEM graduates overall, but there were more women by comparison. They even found a reverse gender gap in those same nations when it came to certain STEM measurements — for instance, women in Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan earned more than 50% of the total number of science degrees.

We can attribute the difference to the difference in cultures.

This is further reinforced by the research done in South Asian countries, showing that girls steer away from STEM quite late, at the age of 10.

As no-one grows in a culture-free environment, it is impossible to tell which cultural influence is more unnatural. But hopefully, it can burst a myth of innate inability of women to succeed in STEM subjects. We cannot possibly know whether it will lead to 50%-50% gender balance or if indeed there is a slight gender-specific difference. It will be interesting to find it out.

Mimi Beard

Mimi Beard‘s story is quite remarkable. Mimi was homeless since the age of 16, and had to choose between eating and paying for electricity (she chose to study by candlelight because it was cheaper). Despite being disadvantaged, passed the exams, got an internship at KPMG, but declined the offer of a permanent position and went to for another company instead. By the age of 22, Mimi is also a co-organiser of a Google Developer Group in her region and a co-founder of a forum. In her interview, Mimi said that the most important thing for her was that her ambitions were encouraged by her tutors who saw her potential.

If I could give career practitioners or career leaders advice, it would be to give the students aspirations. Children that come from disadvantaged backgrounds would always sell themselves short. They will have a big dream they wished they could do if they had a different situation. But, practically thinking, they will always give a career that is easier to reach purely because they don't ever imagine not being in that situation.

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