In my previous blog, I discussed my ambivalent feelings about the #metoo movement, and now it appears that the world is conspiring to throw another perplexing tangle into my brain, the issue of implementing discriminatory policies for the social good.
This issue has come up a lot for me recently. It started with the proposed Bill C-25, specifically PART XIV.1 172.1, Disclosure Relating to Diversity. This law proposes that businesses be required on an annual basis to disclose diversity-related personal information about directors and senior managers. It continued with Canada’s recent Gender Equity budget, focused to a huge degree on identity politics. And then this week, Google has faced lawsuits for implementing systemic discrimination against white and Asian applicants in their hiring processes.
When an issue hits again and again, it gets my thoughts churning.
I really struggle with this issue because there’s certainly been historically bias against minorities and women in most aspects of western culture. I also think that discrimination exists today, though clearly not as much in the past. What I’m confused about is the degree to which discrimination exists today and the right way to tackle the issue.
The issue is complicated by the fact that I’m a white male. Thus, I have an emotional reaction to policies that will discriminate against whites and males, likely very similar to the emotional reaction a black woman might have against policies that discriminate against blacks and females. Thus, it’s hard for me to separate the logic of my analysis from my emotional knee jerk reactions.
I also believe that there’s something to be said for the expression, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It’s a brilliant saying because it really gets to the emotional heart of the challenge of righting disparity. At the same time, I find it dangerous, because it can be misused to dismiss real concerns. Oppression also feels like oppression.
So, that’s why this topic is challenging to me—it’s hard to define the problem, it’s hard to separate reasoning from emotion, and it’s hard to find solutions. Of course, that’s also why it’s an interesting topic to discuss.
Over the line
To me, Bill-C25 is a huge problem, because I believe it is wrong for corporations to be collecting information about their employees’ gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, and even more wrong for them to publish it. People should have the right to control the disclosure of their own personal information. It shocks me that people who in the last century saw attempted genocides in Germany, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Iraq think it’s a good idea to create huge public databases that identify people by ethnicity, highlighting the most successful members of each ethnic group.
The Liberals don’t want these databases so that they can persecute minorities, but it seems clear to me that in this world, weird stuff happens. Donald Trump got elected in the USA. Who’s to say that something equally strange couldn’t happen in Canada? And if it does, I think it’s a bad idea to have a ready-made list of leaders in ethnic communities that a racist Prime Minister might want to persecute.
To stop political horrors from happening, you want it to be difficult for governments to do horrible things. You want people to be able to hide, to fight back. So, there’s value in not creating governmental infrastructure to make persecution easy.
Discrimination for good
The more challenging issue for me is deliberately implementing discriminatory systems to put white males at a disadvantage relative to other people. I have so many different perspectives on this one.
First, if women or ethnic groups are at a disadvantage as a result of their gender or ethnicity, that’s a big problem for me, and a problem that should be addressed. However, the evidence of that discrimination doesn’t seem particularly solid. For instance, there was an Australian study showed that gender and ethnic-identification information was stripped from resumes, males were actually more likely to be short-listed for jobs. Similar blind-hiring results have been found in Canada as well, supporting the surprising idea that hiring practices discriminate against men.
The gender pay gap data is also difficult to interpret, partly because the numbers are very political and because it seems like it’s almost impossible to get an apples to apples comparison. I think there’s a pay gap, but I’d be hard pressed to find evidence that actually proves it conclusively.
My second thought is that implementing systemic discrimination against another gender or ethnic group seems like a terrible solution. Because then you’ve implement systematic discrimination against a group based on their gender or ethnicity.
It’s not that the proposed cure would be worse than the disease, but rather than the proposed cure is the disease. If I abhor the idea of people of one gender being discriminated against, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t also abhor the idea of people of another gender being discriminated against.
The other big problem with this effort to improve equality though discrimination is that it doesn’t seem to be intellectually honest because governments appear to be focused only on correcting injustices that affect women and minorities, not others.
For instance, more women than men have been going to university, to the extent that in Canada in 2009, 34% of women aged 25 to 34 had a bachelors’ degree, while only 26% of men did—a 31% difference. Since then, the ratios have become even more skewed. Yet there hasn’t been a high-profile push to get more men into university, or determine why Canada’s education system is failing males.
Similarly, one often hears about how the gender gap in science and engineering needs to be addressed, but it’s very rare that one hears about how problematic it is that there are so few men in nursing. In the US, fewer than 10% of nurses are male, and I imagine the statistics aren’t that different in Canada. I’m not sure why it’s more important that women work in construction jobs than men work in nursing jobs, but based on the latest federal budget, the Liberals seem to believe this is the case.
The injustice of the justice system is even more of a concern. Men face significantly higher conviction rates than women. What’s more, a recent American study shows that men on average face 63% longer prison terms than women (from memory, a Canadian study discovered a similar difference). While people are (rightly) outraged about the statistics when it comes to the conviction rates and sentences for aboriginals, they largely don’t seem to care about bias against men.
Now, I don’t know if other factors explain these discrepancy—men are generally bigger and stronger than women, so one could expect them on average to do more harm than a women when committing, for instance, assault. The greater damage they cause might factor into sentences. But even so, such big unexplained differences in conviction rates and sentences is worrisome.
My bottom line
To be clear, my argument isn’t that the government shouldn’t attempt to correct injustices. Rather, some governments’ tendencies to focus on particular injustices and ignoring others makes me wonder whether the goal of such governments is to actually reduce inequality, or to pander to their base. And that makes me even more skeptical of policies that attempt to reduce discrimination by implementing systemic discrimination.
Today in Canada, female government employees outnumber male employees by about 70%. More than just about any other employment statistic, that particular ratio is under the government’s control. Thus, if the government is sincere in its belief that diversity is good, gender inequalities need to be addressed, and discriminatory policies are the best way to address them, then I would expect them to implement policies to discriminate against women in government hiring until this inequality is corrected. But I suspect they won’t, which makes me cynical when they suggest this approach in other areas.
Thus, while I’m concerned gender and ethnic inequalities, I’ll remain nervous about policies that attempt to solve the problem by judging people not by the content of their character, but rather the color of their skin. And remain frustrated while I continue to seek just ways to address discrimination.