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Class not gender is intractable

Feminism is unassailable but fixating on it deflects from class-based inequalities

There are well-meaning campaigns to increase the number of female voices in Irish media and politics.

Equal treatment of the sexes is a war that needed to be fought. It doesn’t just benefit women, it benefits men as well, as men can be freed from a race to the bottom of macho culture that tends to invade work and social relations.

It benefits us all when in politics women bring different views to a discussion. There is plenty of research that shows a plurality of views leads to better decision-making. We also know that women make decisions in different ways. Women tend to be more cautious, which means they avoid making massive (and grave) errors. Think bankers and their under-regulation.

The cause of feminism is not over, but the war has in effect been won – no one would seriously argue against the principle. There are, however, some important skirmishes left to be finished in the clean-up operation.

‘Skirmishes’ is probably too soft a word for issues such as the pay gap and the glass ceiling. But the causes of these things are quite complex and certain measures to advance women’s rights might be unfair, ineffective or unnecessary. But who studies them? It’s usually just those people who feel most oppressed. It’s what the Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath calls ‘me’ studies.

Because gender studies is dominated by a certain type of person it is (ironically) falling into the trap that the absence of women in decision-making positions in politics, science, business, academia and elsewhere suffer: they do not hear reasonable criticisms.

That’s because now to criticise any form of feminism or a measure for gender equality is to expose yourself as against equality. Those who are in fact in favour of equality, but don’t want to appear to be opposed then stay silent from these debates. Only a small extreme minority vocalises against it, and this further convinces the ‘me studies’ crew of the moral rectitude of their position.

Stopping the conversation has a number of negative consequences, led by the danger we lose sight of the real causes and complexity of the issues.

Simpson’s Paradox is a quirk in probability that shows that trends in statistics disappear or are reversed when the data are combined. A famous case is admissions to Graduate School in Berkeley in 1973. The data showed a large and statistically significant bias in admissions in favour of men.

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A naive analysis of the data suggested Berkeley had a case to answer. But statisticians there observed when the data are broken down by department the trend is reversed. There’s a bias in favour of women!

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That’s because women are systematically more likely to apply to courses that have much lower admissions rates.

Other cases are more complex. When we discuss the glass ceiling, factors that are less easy to measure or observe might explain discrepancies.

Gender is pretty easy to measure – the vast majority of people can be put in the binary categories of male or female. We often focus on it to the exclusion of other sources of discrimination. But there are many other important sources of difference among humans. Gender equality isn’t the threat that class inequality poses.

Feminism has largely won because middle-class women and middle-class men share interests.

Why would middle-class men feel threatened by allowing their wives, sisters or neighbours to achieve equality? It won’t cost us anything.

Middle-class Dublin voices are broadly the same regardless of gender. And the establishment will be happy to fixate on any remaining inequalities, because feminism deflects attention from the more threatening issue of class inequality.

The next time you are invited to join criticism of a panel or committee deemed a ‘sausage fest’, also ask about class, age, race and nationality. In a gender-neutral panel or a gender-neutral cultural programme there are likely to be other important voices not being heard.

An alternative view by Eoin O’Malley