Affirmative Action

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Also in democratic societies exclusion and discrimination are apparent, inscribed in the structures of society. Affirmative action is a term for activities aimed at addressing them on a structural level.

Regulations are an effective instrument to change structures. By establishing new rules we make it easier for excluded, underrepresented or discriminated persons to access these structures and to participate: A parliament, a job position, access to demanded social resources... One can distinguish between two types.

  • Restrictions often apply to privileged people: Don’t interrupt anyone. Don’t shout. Let everyone contribute. Do not treat anyone unfairly. Use diversity-sensitive language.
  • Giving people privileges: Regulations provide support for those people who usually experience (structural) discrimination. Such measures are called affirmative action, positive action, or positive discrimination.

Examples for Positve Measures

  • Gender quotas for positions
  • Other quotas: In example, a board of an association is composed by proportional representation of each district covered by the association. Implementing quota for migrants, youth or other groups
  • Stipendia for students from minority groups
  • Training and mentoring for underrepresented groups
  • Speech time: Speakers‘ lists with equal contributions of male and female contributors. In parliaments speech time is shared according to the size of a parliamentarian group.[1]

Affirmative Action

"Positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded."[2]

Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Positive Action

"Positive action measures are proportionate measures undertaken with the purpose of achieving full and effective equality in practice for members of groups that are socially or economically disadvantaged, or otherwise face the consequences of past or present discrimination or disadvantage."

Source: Equinet

The nature of affirmative action policies varies from region to region. Legal frameworks implemented mainly two different approaches to positive measures.

  • The derogation approach implies that positive action is perceived as an exception to equal treatment. According to Equinet, the European network of equality bodies, this is "the approach that the European Union (EU) has traditionally taken."
  • The substantive approach perceives positive action as the necessary tool to achieve substantive equality in the first place. As written in Equinet's report, some European countries follow this philosophy.[3]

Read more about the topic, including an overview over recent developments in Europe: Equinet (2021). Exploring positive action as a means to fight structural discrimination in Europe

What you can do

Originally tested and improved in grassroots groups, then broadened into small businesses and in civil society organisations, over time the idea of female quota gained acceptance beyond the groups of its ideators and grew more and more mainstream changing the composition of governing bodies in business, civil society, and politics. Since 2003, the idea was enshrined in law in some countries and more and more countries are following. As a result, the under-representation of women on corporate boards has been somewhat mitigated and their share increased from around ten percent to about one-third (Arndt, Wrohlich 2019) [4]

The example illustrates, how a measure created in a local context or on the ground can make its way through the entire society. Which set of rules and procedures could be introduced into your training or lesson to ensure more equality in our society?

  • Minority rights in an assembly
  • Female, youth, or migrant quota on boards or in decision bodies
  • Scholarships/participation quotas for minorities
  • Specific supporting activities (trainings or mentoring)
  • Gender-equal lists of speakers in a discussion
  • Codifications for the sensitive language or behavior
  • Neutral selection criteria for positions or criteria which recognize competences of minorities or marginalized groups
  • Creating conditions that allow everyone to participate
  • ...


  1. N. Zimmermann, H. Fahrun, E. Skowron (Ed.): Diversity Dynamics: Activating the Potential of Diversity in Trainings; Berlin 2014; MitOst; ISBN 978-3-944012-02-5
  2. After:
  3. Equinet European Network of Equality Bodies (2021). Exploring positive action as a means to fight structural discrimination in Europe. Equality Law in Practice Working Group, Brussels
  4. Arndt, P.; Wrohlich, K. (2019). Geschlechterquoten im europäischen Vergleich: Harte Sanktionen bei Nichteinhaltung sind am wirkungsvollsten. DIW Wochenbericht 38/2019; DIW Berlin — Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung e. V.;

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:



Diversity Dynamics: Activating the Potential of Diversity in Trainings

MitOst Editionen 2015: Read