The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Nebton's picture

    When is sexual discrimination wrong?

    I know, your first thought is ALWAYS. Bear with me, however, as I examine the edge cases. What qualifies as an edge case will vary from person to person, I imagine.

    Starting with the most extreme case that is so extreme it's hard to imagine it being labeled as discrimination, consider our dating choices. Most of us (literally) discriminate on the basis of sex in those conditions, and almost no one would consider it wrong.

    Moving slightly along this chain, we reach beauty contests. Some people have challenged sexual discrimination in these as well, but not too many find a problem with the sexual discrimation aspect inherent in almost all beauty contests. (That's not to say that they don't have other flaws being picked over.)

    Next in my chain comes sport contests. As the recent issues with Caster Semenya remind us, there's a reason why sexual discrimination is used here, as well. Of course, in her case, it's even harder to reconcile, but for sake of argument let's stick with the unwarranted assumption that we can always tell males from females. In almost every test of physical speed, strength, and endurance, the elite men operate at a level significantly superior to the elite women. (A noticeable exception is in ultramarathons. Once the race distance gets to about 100 miles, psychological strength dominates and women can be the overall winners.) So, the reason for sexual discrimination in these cases is to give women a chance to win. That does seem a tad paternalistic, but it's also understandable, IMO. Waters get muddied by cases where women want to play with or compete against the men. There seem to be more of these cases every day.

    Next, let's consider insurance costs. Women pay more in health insurance, men pay more in car insurance (at least young men do - since my wife and I share insurance, I haven't really kept track of such differences any more). Is this fair? If not, how should it be rectified? If insurance was government run, rectifying the inequities wouldn't be too hard, but with private companies, we tend to want to be cautious of asking them to foot the bill for such rectification.

    Next, let's consider the political sphere. Men still dominate here, as well. Two reasons for this come to my mind: (1) we're less likely to vote for female politicians (for numerous reasons, such as them being considered b*tchy where men are considered strong, etc.), (2) women are less likely to run for public office in the first place (for numerous reasons, but #1 above would be one such reason, I imagine). I can't really imagine a legal challenge to this type of discrimination, but an activist approach should help.

    Finally, the job market. Almost all Americans (and presumably all dagbloggers) would agree with "equal pay for equal work" in theory, but once you leave theory, some quickly find ways to pick at this as well. First of all, how do we define "equal work"? There are male dominated fields and female dominated fields, and male dominated fields pay more money (even for females in those fields). Secondly, are employers allowed to consider experience? Most people think they can, but how do we resolve the problem that women are more likely to take time off from their careers to help raise a family? (Not all women, of course, but enough that it'll affect the averages significantly.) Even after controlling for these variables, women still tend to earn less, and I think at least part of that might be due to men feeling more free to be assertive in asking for raises (see #1 in the political discussion above for why that might be true). Finally, some bosses are just pricks. See Ledbetter for an example of that. For the last case, we can imagine a way to address it, but what about for the other cases?

    Although I realize this is now quite long, my primary purpose in writing this is to generate discussion, so I return to my original question as a starting point: When is sexual discrimination wrong?


    No takers? Maybe the questions are too difficult. I think that there are two factors to weigh in job discrimination: the relevance of gender to the job and the impact of the discrimination.

    For jobs where sexual physical traits are highly relevant to performance, discrimination is easier to justify. An obvious case would be film casting. You wouldn't to demand that production companies hire men for female parts or women for male parts.

    Conversely, the more common the job, the more important it is to ensure equal opportunity. There are jobs where gender may make a difference, such as in physical labor (construction) or customer preference (medicine), but the difference is not that significant, and the job is so common that excluding one sex would engender substantial disparities. No pun intended.

    In terms of equal pay, I don't know much about workplace discrimination law, but I believe that you need to compare apples-to-apples in order to prove discrimination, e.g. show a systematic difference in pay between colleagues that are equally qualified.

    As to global pay differences, there have been many reasons proffered for why men are still paid better than women. I don't think that there's a way to scientifically demonstrate the significance of any particular factor, and there are likely multiple factors in play, so we should just remain agnostic. But regardless of the cause, we should design social policy to reduce the disparity as much as possible, e.g. discrimination law, scholarships for women, childcare options, etc.

    Thanks for the opinions, Genghis. It's not an easy question, and I've tried to present a lot of examples to provide a broad context.

    If it wasn't clear, what got me thinking about this recently was the issue of insurance disparity. Specifically, health insurance disparity, but I thought I'd throw the car insurance bit in there just to provide a broader context there, as well.

    Great post Nebby.

    You'd better be back! You know I'm expecting something from you.

    By the way, I've also considered doing a piece comparing and contrasting sexual discrimination with racial discrimination. I'll probably refer back to this piece, because consider what happens if race is the variable in the examples I provided instead of sex. Other than with dating preferences (and I'm not too keen on making an exception there, other than to say there's no accounting for taste), I can't imagine any of those forms of discrimination being remotely acceptable.

    Of course, they still exist. Racial minorities are also underrepresented in politics, and blacks tend to earn less than whites. And, of course, there are other issues, such as incarceration rates. Now that I think of it, the incarceration rate issue demonstrates an even greater sexual bias than a racial one, not considering crime rates, of course.

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