Should we worry that only X% of CEOs, or politicians or philosophers (or whatever) are women? Is there something unjust or morally defective about a society with low percentages of women occupying these kinds of roles? That’s what we’re looking at in this series of posts, based on Janet Radcliffe-Richard’s (RR’s) paper “Only X%: the Problem of Sex Inequality”.
In part one, I looked at the basic template of all “only X%”-arguments. Following RR, I suggested that the moral principle motivating this type of argument is opaque: until we specify its contents, we will be unable to assess the success of the argument. RR’s central thesis is that it is not easy to specify those contents in a way that makes the argument compelling. We saw this the last day when looking at a version of the argument that appealed to the principle of ground-level impartiality (though I had some disagreements with RR in this regard).
Today we continue to explore RR’s central thesis by looking at alternative ways of cashing out the moral premise. In the course of doing so, we shall see why RR thinks that debates of the “only X%” type tend to obscure the important issues when it comes to gender-related justice.
1. Should we desire equal outcomes for men and women?
The principle of ground-level impartiality is a negative principle. That is to say: it stipulates what we should not do when pursuing justice. It is not a positive principle. It does not say that we should pursue particular kinds of outcomes. But maybe that’s the problem? Maybe the “only X%” argument is best understood with a positive principle of equality as its motivating premise?
RR considers this possibility. A positive principle of equality would demand that we actually take steps to equalise the distribution of some social goods (jobs, pay, leisure time etc.) between men and women. In other words, it would have the following form:
Positive Principle of Sexual Equality: Equality between the sexes demands that, with respect to some set of social goods (jobs, pay, leisure time etc.), the distribution of those goods between the sexes should be equal (i.e. split 50-50).
A principle of this sort would have significant practical implications. It would require policies and procedures that actively ensure the equal distribution of social goods. As such, a principle of this sort could be a great focal point for campaigns for political and social change. But is it a plausible moral principle of equality?
RR argues that it is not. For starters, she thinks there are significant hurdles when it comes to working out which social goods should be equalised. There is a long-standing debate, mentioned in part one, between those who think that opportunities (whatever they may be) should be equalised and those who think that certain outcomes (whatever they may be) should be equalised.
That debate is certainly contentious, but that doesn’t mean there will never be any agreement about the relevant set of social goods. That’s why RR emphasises a second problem with the positive principle of equality. To illustrate she uses the example of the demand for equal pay. Suppose it is agreed that pay is one of the social goods that ought to be equally distributed. What then follows for sexual equality?
Well, the obvious answer is that the equalisation of pay between the two sexes should follow. But it’s not that straightforward. If the belief is that pay should be equalised, then there is no particular reason to focus on the equalisation of pay between men and women. All inequalities of pay should be corrected. The result being that specific arguments about women — of the “only X%” variety — lose some of their force.
RR seems to think that this is a major problem for proponents of sexual equality because it means that arguments focusing on the equalisation of pay between the sexes (as opposed to anyone else) would only then make sense if we accept that general inequalities of pay are permissible. As she puts it:
If everybody should be equal in the respect at issue (in this case pay), this would in itself have the implication that men and women should be equal, but anyone who held a principle of that kind would have no basis for special complaints about inequality of pay between women and men in particular. All inequalities of the pay would be equally open to objection. This means that a special concern for the equalizing of women and men makes sense only against a background of general ideals that allow for inequality in that respect.
Furthermore, any particular concern for the equalisation of pay between men and women would, in such a case, actually breach the principle of ground-level impartiality. This is because it would result in an arbitrary preference being made in favour of equalising women’s pay over and above equalisation of pay between other groups and persons.
I get the philosophical point that RR is making here, but I wonder how serious it is for proponents of “only X%” style arguments. Couldn’t they just bite the bullet and say “yeah, we care about equalising pay for all peoples” and then supplement this with the pragmatic point that equalising pay between the sexes is an important first step toward this general goal? (I would also add that the goal being stated here — that pay should be equalised — is far too general. It may imply some kind of egalitarian socialism, or it may be more modest than that e.g. “equal pay for equal work”. I would like to know what sort of goal is being proposed.)
2. Obscuring the Wider Problem
Having argued that positive versions of the equality principle are unwelcome, at least insofar as they don’t contribute to the case for equality between the sexes, RR turns her attention to what she calls the “wider problem”. As she sees it, debates about “only X%” arguments obscure the important issues when it comes to gender injustice. These more important issues are twofold: (i) the actual mechanisms of gender discrimination and (ii) the need for policy-based experiments to address those actual cases.
As regards the first of these issues, RR is adamant that in challenging the “only X%” style arguments she is not calling into question the actual existence of gender discrimination. On the contrary, she thinks there is ample evidence for the existence of many specific cases of gender discrimination. These specific cases have specific mechanisms. Her point is that we should direct our attention to addressing those specific mechanisms. The problem is that “only X%” arguments draw attention away from those specific mechanisms and onto general patterns in the distribution of social goods.
But given that there are such instances of gender discrimination, what should be done about it? Answering this brings us to the second important issue. One of the interesting things about gender discrimination in the modern Western world is that it tends to be more subtle and implicit in nature than it once was. When JS Mill wrote his work On the Subjugation of Women there were laws in place that explicitly excluded women from certain goods. Furthermore, at that time, people would openly express sexist views, including views about the cognitive inferiority of women, without being criticised or chastised. Although explicit laws and attitudes of this sort have not vanished in the intervening years, they have certainly diminished. The bigger problem in Western countries now lies in combatting the deep-seated, often subconscious, gender biases that affect our behaviour.
And it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what should be done to combat those biases. We know that we must somehow change how people (both men and women) think about women at an explicit and implicit level. But how to go about that it is another question. It is here that RR thinks we need to make room for experimental policies. What’s more she thinks this could, in appropriate cases, include experimenting with gender quotas in different jobs and professions.
She earmarks politics as a special and obvious case in which quotas would be justified. The criteria for being a good political representative are not in themselves purely gender-neutral anyway. One thing that a representative should be able to do is represent different sets of perspectives and interests. RR thinks it is clear from history that a major reason why women were often explicitly excluded by laws was the absence of their voice and perspective from the decision-making process. Making sure that different perspectives get to contribute to public decision-making would be an important step towards combatting that problem.
But she also thinks that gender quotas may be permissible in other contexts. For example, in the hiring of senior academics or businesspeople. The idea would be that the purpose of those roles would need to be reconceived. The traditional metrics and standards of success would continue to apply. Thus, a senior academic would continue to be a good teacher, researcher and/or administrator. But added to this would be their capacity to serve as a role model for overcoming gender discrimination.
If the roles were reconceived in this way, preferential hiring of women would no longer breach the requirements of ground-level impartiality. This would be because preferential hiring of women would no longer be arbitrary and unjustifiable: part and parcel of what it would now mean to be a good senior academic would be that the occupant was a good role model for overcoming gender discrimination. (This hearkens back to the society-as-a-race metaphor that was discussed in part one).
So this would be another way in which gender quotas could be acceptable. RR is clear that this would have nothing to do with gender injustice per se. In other words, the equalisation of outcomes in this case would not be a demand of justice. Rather, it would be policy measure for overcoming the specific and actual mechanisms of gender discrimination. This is, in many ways, the underlying point of RR’s article: that debates about inequality between the sexes are not best understood in terms of the demands of justice. At least, not anymore. She also suggests that we need to think more seriously about the goals of society in the future with respect to gender. Should we cling to gender binaries? Should we try to homogenise the genders? Or should we embrace increasing gender diversiifcation (postgenderism)? Thinking about those questions would also help to clarify the goals of modern feminism.
Okay, so that brings us to the end of this series. To quickly recap, the point of RR’s article was to call into question the use of “only X%”-type arguments by proponents of equality between the sexes. RR claims that these arguments usually lack specificity in terms of their motivating moral premises. When such specificity is added, it is not clear that the arguments work.
We saw this first when looking at a version of the argument that worked with the principle of ground-level impartiality. According to this principle, once we have decided on the goods a society should pursue, there should be no arbitrary discrimination between people in terms of access to those goods. The problem is that if the “only X%” argument is run with this principle in mind, it is not clear that differential distributions of social goods is an indicatory of arbitrary discrimination.
The “only X%” argument also failed when it was run with a more positive principle of equality, according to which the equalisation of certain social goods should be among the goals of society. The problem then was that it wasn’t clear why inequalities between the sexes merited special concern.
RR's overall conclusion then was that arguments of the “only X%” type actually served to distract us from the real problems with differential treatment of the sexes. These “real” problems had to do with addressing the actual and specific mechanisms of gender discrimination.