Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Gender discrimination or different preferences? And does it matter?

As an economics student, I've encountered two strands of literature on gender discrimination. There is one side that attempts to expose and document discrimination against women by measuring the wage gap that is unexplained by observable factors, by showing that the hiring and promotion of women orchestra players is increased when there are blind auditions with a screen, and by finding other examples of blatant gender discrimination in the job market. In the rest of the world, people often point out how women are portrayed differently in the media than men (Sarah Palin, for example), or how there's too much focus on women to be thin and young, or how women are stereotyped as being sensitive on the job. On the opposite extreme, there is a strand of literature that dismisses any notion of gender discrimination. This literature claims that women simply have different preferences than men (for example, they want to have children or to stay home with their children rather than work, or to be fit and work out), and that any evidence of "discrimination" is completely explained by these different tastes.

Personally, I think that the focus on either pointing out gender discrimination or on asserting that it does not exist is somewhat misguided and does not actually promote a significant improvement in the lives of women (and men, too). The fact is - there are many different women, just as there are many different men. There are rich women and poor women, conservative women and liberal women, women who want to have the right to abortion and women who don't, women who want to work and have a career and women who want to stay home and raise their children. It seems strange to group them all under the umbrella of experiencing gender discrimination or having different preferences than men.

We must also remember that women from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer opportunities not only than men, but also than other women. What a society should do is to promote policies that make it easier for these different women to be who they are and to also receive equal opportunities as men and other women on the job and in other parts of their lives. Such policies include paid maternity leave (which currently only exists in two states in the US, by the way), affordable and good quality child care (as the quality of child care is one of the greatest determinants of children's academic achievement and health outcomes), prenatal care that's accessible, as well as benefits that allow single mothers to support their families just as well as male heads of households can.

Now, I do not deny that it is important to be aware of gender discrimination (whenever it exists), and to understand that women may have different preferences than men. However, if feminism concentrates only on these two extreme sides, then we get sidetracked from making changes that can actually improve the lives of women and their families, especially those living in poverty.

1 comment:

  1. Great post - I have a few thoughts.

    First, I do not understand the argument being made here. In what world is conducting research to see whether there is a wage gap, or conducting research on gendered preferences, an "extreme side" to be on? I doubt researchers in these fields shun other areas of research; rather, they lack the time to do it all individually. Extreme sides implies that these 'strands of literature,' as you put it, lie in opposition. Maybe some do, but the reality is that one team of researchers can't do everything. Thus some focus on the wage gap, while others focus on blind hiring, etc.

    The real, and I think overlooked, difficulty here is a vast public disagreement over what the word 'discrimination' really refers to.

    There's huge diversity in what we think of when we hear the term 'gender discrimination.' Some minds may jump immediately to the 70 cent to the dollar female:male wage gap (most often explained away by preferences). Other minds may jump to the Hilary Clinton problem of women in the workforce - either too soft, or too bitchy. The list goes on.

    I agree that there is not an either/or conversation to be had, but rather a solution-oriented one. Unfortunately, your way of pointing this out is a bit distracting.

    Unfortunately, like feminism as a whole, this area lacks clear terminology and direction. Thus your call for change is apt, though it relies first on some better defining and goal setting among activists of all preference sets.


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