20 April 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Feminism

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Feminism.

It was suggested to me that men won't be interested in this subject. Well, I
don't know about that since the men I know are always interested in matters
concerning women. Presumably men would also be interested in feminism
especially as I have tried to argue in my very short essay that
discrimination against women reflects a rather more serious state of affairs
than just women being disadvantaged by men.

See you Sunday,

Take care


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Feminism covers a lot of theories and ideologies. It also covers a number of
actions to redress the imbalances feminists identify in the life of women.
It is therefore not easy to identify what feminism is and what it is all
about. This means that if we were to give a general criteria of what
feminism is and what it is concerned with we'll be doing the ideology an
injustice. However, I feel we have very little choice but to start, for our
purposes, by identifying such a general criteria.

One of the most important ideas of feminism is that biological differences
should not lead to social inequalities. Taking this idea a step further, an
idea of feminism is that society should not be organized in such a way as to
favour males in most walks of life, but especially in the work environment.
I think that we can generally agree with these two principles. The methods
or strategies required to bring about equality are of course another issue.

The first issue that feminism /should consider is the ability to distinguish
inequalities or discrimination which specifically affect women only and
other inequalities, which perhaps affect women more than men. What test
would we have to apply to distinguish between women specific discrimination
and other discrimination? If we can make this distinction we can then
perhaps be able to deal with the sex specific inequalities more efficiently
(quicker and binding solutions) than if we were solving the wrong problem,
so to speak.

A side issue which does not seem to be fully addressed in a debate on
feminism is who is doing the discrimination? It is generally assumed that,
for example, in the work situation it is men who discriminate against women.
Or maybe even in general society at large. What are the grounds for this
belief? Just because it seems that it is men who benefit from the
discrimination it does not automatically mean that it is only men who
discriminate against women. In fact it might not even be anyone as such that
holds women back from progressing in their career.

In Newsweek International, 27 February 2007*, in an article called Myth and
Reality it is suggested that one reason why women are held back is because
of the work system in Europe. The European system is more command and
control driven than the US system which is more objective based system. What
the article is suggesting is that under the European system what matters
most is how much time you spend at your desk, and the boss seeing you, and
not what you are capable of achieving. Under this system women lose out
because they have, more often than not, to be away from their desk to look
after their children. And this is where it becomes important to establish
women specific discrimination from general discrimination.

At face value, the command and control system seems implicitly, if not
explicitly, to discriminate against women. But if you read the article it
also refers to a study done by the London School of Economics which claims
that, "flex work tends to be some 25 percent more productive than office
work." It seems to me that command style management not so much
discriminates against women, but it rather discriminates against
share-holder value in favour of a few top echelon managers. A work system
which balances work life and private life means that not only people are
happier but that the system attracts better trained and better qualified
employees; which perhaps is the difference between market leader and average
trader. The Newsweek article quotes the BT case which has been operating a
flexi time system since the 1980's and has a 99% return rate on employees
who are mothers compared with the British average of 47%. Hence, it might
not be that men at the top discriminate against women, but that they also
discriminate against share holders.

The point about the flexi time system is that it benefits not only women but
also men. However, in Australia it is estimated that on average a women is
likely to be out of the workforce for six years to look after the young
family. (The Sydney Morning Herald. April 18, 2007*). This absence seems to
further support the claim that women are discriminated against because
they are women; they have to fulfil a biological necessity which does not
apply for men. But there again, I don't read this as evidence of women
specific discrimination. I read it as a flawed labour system and the problem
is not discrimination but an inadequate employment system for today's
economic system. From an economic point of view, today's global economy
means that more unskilled labour intensive jobs are moving to developing
countries where these costs can be quite low. On the whole, the developed
world cannot generally compete against this, but they can compete of the
skilled and the super skilled jobs: i.e. talent. Hence, by discriminating
against talent (in developed countries) is indicative that the employment
system is somehow flawed.

The Herald also gives statistics which show that women earn less than men,
especially if a women is out of the workforce for a long time. At face
value it might be argued that this is clear discrimination against women and
their inability to earn equal pay for equal work. In my opinion it is more
serious than that. What these statistics tell us is that companies wilfully
exclude talented people by offering them less than their market value. Are
companies forfeiting higher market valuation because they are intentionally
excluding potentially talented people from their workforce because they do
not pay market value salaries? Or simply because they are excluding talented
people purely on non-commercial grounds.

The term usually used to describe a woman's inability to go up the corporate
ladder is the "glass ceiling." This is an artificial barrier which women
experience when they seek high level promotions. This barrier is put there
by men to stop women from reaching the top jobs in a company. While no one
will dispute that some women are discriminated against and treated unfairly
in the workplace, and else where, discrimination is more wide spread than
that. The Wikipedia gives a long list of various types of discrimination,
including ageism, race discrimination, language discrimination, heightism,
religious and secularism intolerance, xenophobia and many more.

I would argue that a philosophical enquire should investigate the phenomenon
of discrimination and not just one form of discrimination. We all agree that
discrimination is unacceptable behaviour, but this does not add to the sum
total of our knowledge and eventually understanding. Something we know
already does not add new information (Theory of Information; Shannon.)

In a way, discrimination in general and discrimination specifically against
women started with nature. The only problem for us with this is that nature
does not make moral judgements the way we do. Or rather we have evolved
moral standards, as a survival strategy, long after nature had developed the
gene structure as survival strategy based on competition. In a way, we can
literally say that trying to stop discrimination goes against our nature.
And trying to reorganise society and humans in general to stop
discriminating is like trying to fix a problem with the car's engine whilst
doing 120km down the motorway. It's not easy.

The first source of discrimination in nature if of course the sexual role
the two sexes play in the procreation game. Females, have to carry the
unfertilised gamete, carry the fertilised gamete to term in a womb until the
offspring is born and then nourish and look after the newly born for a good
number of years. The male need only supply the fertilizing sperm, which can
be produced in large quantities and does not involve an elaborate biological
mechanism compared to the gamete. The male is not immobilised or
restricted when procreating, unlike the female who experiences a great
deal of discomfort during the gestation period and beyond. Theoretically,
males can also have an infinite number of children, whilst the female is
determined to have as many children as the number of eggs she is born
with. And as Dawkins puts it, female exploitation starts here.

The second source of discrimination in nature comes from living systems have
to compete against other systems, living or otherwise, for resources which
are needed for survival. Now, as far as the living system is concerned,
anything that is not an offspring or a relative it has to compete against.
It is immaterial whether this competition is direct or indirect. Of course,
we humans have created elaborate systems to cooperate instead of competing,
or rather systems that seem to limit who and how we compete. For example, I
would say that a company is such a system in the same way that a tribe is a
similar system. Although this arrangement does not do away with competition,
it sort of manages it. However, the bottom line is that, what matters is
winning that competition by fair or foul means. Discrimination is an unfair
way of gaining an advantage and as we know from evolutionary game theory
(and similar theories) it may benefit a few people to cheat in the short

A more subtle discrimination, stems from the fact that males have to
compete for females. Or at least that is the received wisdom. Usually, we
forget the other side of the argument. Females also try and find the best
possible male they can be with. This selection process creates competition
amongst males, and we can clearly say that those males who do not get chosen
experience a form of indirect discrimination. I'm not thinking of extreme
cases but in terms of runners up. The challenger to the dominant male has
more going for him than the male who doesn't do anything. But of course it
is the loser in a contest that gets discriminated against. Another aspect of
this selection process is that even females compete with each other. All
females want the best possible male for themselves, so we're back to

Having established that discrimination can have some basis in nature does
this mean: that it acceptable to discriminate? That there is nothing much we
can about it? And that we shouldn't try to stop discrimination?

Discrimination in anture is still only one strategy that can be adopted. In
fact, one of the more successful survival strategy is to cooperate. We
already have the example of flexi work and it is not uncommon in biology to
think of living systems as genes cooperating together. Don't forget in an
Evolutionary Stable Strategy, it's not the morality that matters, but
whether one can be better off by adopting a different strategy. So, just
because discrimination is founded in nature it does not follow that we have
to practice it. There are equally valid strategies we can follow and
probably more rewarding.

The flexi time principle means that everyone in the company benefits. It
might be the ideal solution for working mothers, but in the end everyone
benefits. Contrast this with what is sometimes called
positive-discrimination. Under positive-discrimination, those groups that
are accepted to have been discriminated against in the past are given a head
start over other "normal" candidates when looking for a job, a place at
university or running for parliament. People from minority races and women
are usually the beneficiaries of such policies. Needless to say that this
is a very controversial issue, which I have no intention of entering into
here. The reason why I introduce it here is because it is nowadays a common
solution for certain discriminations.

However, this sort of strategy requires that we are clear about our
intentions. Do we apply certain strategies because we want to remove
discrimination or because we feel that it is about time that things went in
our favour? In other words, do we believe we deserve a bigger piece of the
cake because we believe that everyone ought to have a big piece of cake or
because we are the ones with a small piece of cake?

I would be inclined to think that we are better if we focused our attention
on reducing discrimination in general rather than fighting to remove
specific types of discrimination. This is not to say that causes like
feminism are to be disapproved of, but more to do with giving the wrong
impression. An impression that can be tested for by what I will call the
cake test: if we think that we deserve a bigger piece of cake because
everyone else has a big piece then this suggests that nature's original
strategy is still winning. If we try to find a fair balance between cake
supply and cake eaters then we are winning.

Take care


*Newsweek International:


*The Sydney Morning Herald:




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