Let’s start with a thought experiment. Suppose that in a given population 50% of people have blue eyes and 50% have brown eyes. Suppose further that there is no evidence to suggest that eye colour has any effect on cognitive ability; indeed, suppose that everything we know suggests that cognitive ability is equally distributed among blue and brown-eyed people. Now imagine that in this population 80% of all senior academics and professors are blue-eyed. What conclusions should we draw about the justice of this society?
I would argue that, if the facts are as I have described them, we can conclude that some arbitrary prejudice is shaping hiring decisions in the upper branches of academia. Such an arbitrary preference would be unjustifiable (all else being equal) and something ought to be done to correct it. Otherwise, we breach one of the most fundamental of our moral principles viz. a commitment to impartiality. Note how the case for this conclusion has been built: armed with a few background assumptions we have been able to infer, from the fact that 80% of senior academics are blue-eyed, the existence of some arbitrary and unjustifiable preference.
Now let’s turn away from the thought experiment and look at the real world. Can similar arguments be made on the basis of observations about men and women? Certainly, many people try to do so. When it comes to debates about gender equality, people often suggest that, from the fact that only X% of CEOs (or senior academics or whatever) are female, we can infer the existence of arbitrary and unjustifiable prejudices against women, and that something ought to be done to correct this state of affairs.
But are they right to do so? In her article, “Only X%: the Problem of Sex Inequality”, Janet Radcliffe-Richards (hereinafter “RR”) argues that they are not. She claims that arguments that infer this conclusion from observations about the percentage of men and women occupying different social roles frequently commit the fallacy of equivocation. Or, more properly: they are not consistent about their motivating moral premises. Over the next two posts, I want to take a look at what she has to say.
Fortunately for me, what she has to say breaks down into two halves. In the first half, she criticises the traditional presentation of the “only X%” arguments, explaining why they (usually) fail. In the second half, she considers alternative interpretations of these arguments, finds them lacking, and suggests that they obscure the real problems with the differential treatment of the sexes. In this post, I will look at the first half of her argument; in the next post I’ll look at the second half.
1. The “Only X%” Argument
The basic template to which “only X%” arguments adhere is as follows:
- (1) Justice demands sexual equality.
- (2) Only X% of women are Ys (CEOs, senior academics, politicians etc.)…or…only X% of men are Ys (childcare providers, stay-at-home dads, nurses, teachers etc.)…or…women only have X% of men’s Ys (wages, leisure time, political influence etc.)
- (3) Therefore, there is unjust inequality between the sexes.
The template already reveals the problem with this argument structure. Premise (1) is the key motivating moral principle. It claims, uncontroversially, that justice demands sexual equality. The problem is that this notion of “sexual equality” is opaque. It needs much more specification if it is to be of any practical assistance. We need to know what a society with sexual equality would look like? Until we do, the overall success of the argument will be in doubt.
The opacity of the moral principle affects the interpretation of premise (2). As you can see, there are a number of ways in which to fill out that premise, but they all do the same thing: they highlight the absence of a 50-50 split between men and women when it comes to different social roles or social goods. On the face of it, this too is uncontroversial. After all, what is equality if not the demand for equal shares of different social outcomes?
The problem, of course, is that equality is a much more complicated concept than that. If we accept a very spare and strict egalitarianism with respect to outcomes, then perhaps we should expect to see 50-50 split in the division of social roles and social goods. But it’s not clear that this is the concept of equality we should accept. One concern is that equalising outcomes in this way may compromise individual choice or agency. That’s why many people prefer a principle of equality of opportunity, which is much more sanguine when it comes to the absence of 50-50 divisions of social outcomes and goods.
So that’s the overarching problem with this “only X%” argument: we need to specify the motivating moral premise before it becomes compelling. RR claims that this is often neglected because the argument is presented as an enthymeme. In other words, the moral premise is usually implied or suppressed. People just say “only X% of women/men have Y; therefore there is unjust inequality”. But that isn’t good enough because we don’t know if the motivating moral premise actually justifies that conclusion. In the remainder of her article she considers different ways in which the moral premise could be specified. She starts with what she takes to be the most morally compelling version: Mill’s principle of perfect equality.
2. Ground Level Impartiality and Millian Equality
The Millian principle comes from JS Mill’s famous work On the Subjugation of Women. RR spends a good deal of time reconstructing the arguments Mill presents in that book. This is actually one of the most valuable parts of her article, particularly for those with an interest in this historical debate.
At the time that Mill penned his work, there were a variety of laws in place that restricted women’s access to education, work, property, public life and so on. One thing Mill found surprising was that a large number of those who shared his own progressive and liberal commitments thought that these laws were acceptable. They did so because they thought women were “naturally” competent, inclined or well-disposed to certain social positions, and these laws did nothing to interfere with those natural competencies, inclinations or predispositions.
Mill argued that this was nonsense. For starters, he argued that there was no way to know whether women were in fact naturally disposed to certain social positions. Since society had deliberately excluded them from those positions, there was never a chance to explore the contradictory hypothesis. Furthermore, there were many women who seemed perfectly competent and happy to fill alternative social positions, suggesting that the “natural” inclination was not true for all. Finally, even if there were such natural inclinations or competencies, that would provide no justification for exclusionary laws. We don’t need laws to force us to do what we are naturally inclined to do: we’re just going to do them anyway. If women were naturally inclined toward certain positions, we wouldn’t need laws in place to exclude them from others.
Having dismissed the prejudicial views of his liberal colleagues, Mill proceeded to develop his principle of justice and sexual equality. According to RR, this principle was one of “ground-level” impartiality. She explains it through a metaphor:
The Society-as-a-race Metaphor: Imagine that society is like a race. There are many different ways in which a race can be set up. You could have a winner-takes-all race, wherein the victor takes all the spoils, or one where the top five share the spoils, or one where every participant gets a prize. Deciding between these options is a matter of determining the type of race one wants to have. Once one makes a decision, no participant should be subjected to an arbitrary disadvantage in the race. For example, if you decide on a winner-takes-all race, you can’t then turn around and decide that all red-haired people have to run the race with weights tied to their ankle. That would be to impose an arbitrary restriction on red-haired people, not justified by the original terms of the race.
As with the race, so with society. We can have a debate about what the just distribution of goods and opportunities ought to be (about the rules of the race), but once we have decided this we cannot arbitrarily hinder or restrict certain subgroups from accessing them. We must be impartial. That was Mill’s critique of his liberal friends: they accepted certain commitments to just outcomes, but then proceeded to arbitrarily exclude women from them.
This gives us Mill’s principle of equality, which is the principle of ground-level impartiality:
Ground-Level Impartiality: Equality between the sexes demands that, once we have determined the basic requirements of justice (rules of society), there cannot be arbitrary discrimination between the sexes with respect to those requirements.
This is a negative principle of equality, not a positive one. It tells us that we cannot do certain things; it does not tell us that we ought to aim for certain outcomes. This is important. RR thinks that ground-level impartiality is beyond controversy by now. It is a minimal standard of ethical decency when it comes to our treatment of others. The problem is that she doesn’t think it can sustain the “only X%” type of argument.
3. Ground Level Impartiality and the Only X% Argument
To see what RR is on about, we need to reformulate the “only X%”-argument, replacing the key moral principle with the principle of ground level impartiality. Also, to make things easier, we will consider a particular version of the only X% claim (the claim that only X% of women occupy senior academic positions):
- (1*) Justice demands ground-level impartiality between the sexes.
- (2*) Only X% (say 20%) of women occupy senior academic positions.
- (3*) Therefore, women are not being treated impartially.
Is this argument compelling? Well, obviously, the conclusion doesn’t follow immediately from the premises. Certain gaps need to be filled. Can they be filled-in in a way that supports the same conclusion?
RR says “no”. The fact that only 20% of senior academics are women represents an unequal “output” in a social process. We can therefore accept that there must be some inequality in the input chain leading to that output. The difficultly is identifying exactly where in the input chain that inequality arises.
Presumably, there is some reasonable set of criteria by which senior academics are to be judged (this is a contentious assumption, as I’ll highlight below) and presumably those who occupy these position match those criteria (or at least a sufficient number of them). The question then is: why so few women? Is it because they are arbitrarily discriminated against by hiring boards? Is it because educational systems arbitrarily prevent them from meeting the relevant criteria? Or is it, perhaps, because they are, on average (i.e. on a population level, not an individual level) less naturally inclined or disposed towards those positions? RR argues that from the mere fact that only 20% of senior academics are women, we have no way of knowing for sure which explanation is true. And consequently we have no way of knowing for sure whether the principle of ground-level impartiality is being breached in this instance.
Two initial clarificatory points about this argument. First, RR feels she is entitled to this conclusion because, if the differential outcomes are the product of “natural” differences, they would not be the product of arbitrary discrimination. So she is falling back on the view of Mill’s opponents in this respect (and this respect alone). Second, her point is about what we can infer from certain facts, not about the existence of discrimination itself. As we shall see in part two, she thinks there is a great deal of arbitrary discrimination against women and that there is specific evidence for its existence in certain contexts. She just doesn’t think that facts about the distribution of social outcomes are a substitute for that evidence.
So what are we to make of RR’s argument? I find it problematic for a number of reasons, two of which I’ll dwell upon here.
The first is that, I think, it fails to justify the claim that natural differences could be one of the reasons for the differential outcomes. The main reason for this is that it is not critical enough about the the concept of “natural” and binary differences between the sexes. If our default view is (or ought to be) that there is no difference in natural disposition or aptitude toward academic positions (or whatever positions we care about), then in the absence of other evidence, we would be entitled to infer arbitrary discrimination from differential outcomes. To be fair, RR tries to explain why our default view should be that there are natural differences between men and women. She highlights historical and non-arbitrary divisions of labour when it comes to pregnancy and child-rearing and other, apparently, “obvious” biological differences in support of this default view. But she never engages with any contradictory evidence. Much of what I have read recently about the biology of sex differences suggests that it depends on many more factors that we had originally realised, and that the variance in these factors is quite large. For example, there are far more intersex people than was historically thought to be the case and they exhibit significant variance in primary and secondary sexual characteristics. I would submit that this suggests that the concept of a “natural” and binary differences between the sexes is trickier than we realise. Furthermore, the fixity of all these characteristics is open to question. This suggests, to me at any rate, appeals to natural difference are more problematic that RR lets on.
The second reason for doubting the argument is that it assumes, too readily, that the characteristics needed for success in different social outcomes are simple and well-understood. In the case of senior academics, there are a number of traits and qualities that would be linked to success. These would include things like intelligence, discipline, reflectiveness, originality, perseverance, openness, interpersonal skills, communication skills and so on. Each of these could be linked to any number of underlying psychological and biological traits. I suspect that different combinations of those traits would allow for different people to be successful in the same role. For example, person A could be intelligent and a strong communicator. They could succeed as a senior academic. Contrariwise, person B could be disciplined, persevering and reflective. They too could be successful. It could be that all these traits and qualities are distributed (naturally) in different proportions to the different sexes. Nevertheless, that in itself would give us no reason to expect differential outcomes when it comes to the attainment of certain social outcomes. The factors that account for success in those outcomes are too complex and multi-factorial to allow us to make that call.
There are other reasons for challenging the argument. One obvious one is that even if natural dispositions draw women away from senior academic positions, that is because society is structured or organised in an unjust way. For instance, it could be that women are naturally more drawn to childcare and that childcare duties make them less likely (on average) to meet the criteria for academic success. Some feminists would simply argue that this means that the criteria for academic success should be restructured so as to allow for women to do both (or require men to do more by way of childcare). In other words, the workplace should be reorganised so as to take account of natural differences between the sexes.
RR actually accepts this criticism, but in doing so she goes back to her race metaphor. She argues that complaints of this sort are about the rules of the race, not about equality or about the impartial application of principles of justice. In other words, they are more fundamental complaints about what counts as a just outcome; not complaints about ground-level impartiality. Still, the appeal of those more fundamental complaints suggests that alternative interpretations of the “only X%” argument might be in order. RR obliges us by looking at those. We’ll see what she has to say about them in part two.