Category Archives: Gender

Prejudice and equalities

Yesterday’s UK papers have been covering a spat between Philip Davies, a Tory MP, and Trevor Philips, the head of the UK ‘equalities’ body (see the Guardian, the Times). I do support the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but Trevor Philips doesn’t do the cause any favours in some of his answers to the MP’s letters.

The Tory MP is a mischief maker with too much time on his hands. He’s written lots of letters about ‘political correctness gone mad’ that fit into a Daily Mail view of the world. In this view, anything and everything is done for the benefit of ‘minorities’ and that would include ‘wimmin’, gay people, ethnic minorities, and anyone different to the norm. This argument takes in the myths about banning golliwogs and Christmas in schools.

Part of the problem comes in the name of the body. The word ‘equality’ means different things to different people, and political philosophers have used up much paper and ink working out what equality, justice, and the ‘good society’ should be. Particularly in the literature on multiculturalism, there’s the big question of group and cultural differentiation and rights. In essence, should people be treated differently just because of their (assumed) membership of a group, and the further (assumed) differences in needs and capabilities. This raises questions of the form ‘should women have separate sports sessions, as they may be put off by the presence of men?’ or ‘how far should employers adapt their working hours for those who need time off for religious reasons?’. Treating everyone the same isn’t equality, as people have different needs and capabilities (see Amartya Sen on capabilities), but treating people differently merely on the basis of group membership can create new injustices (see Sen again in Identity and Violence).

Of course, the work of the EHRC is informed by the historical injustices of the UK. So our history of colonialism and inability to welcome or assimilate newcomers leads to problems with regards to race. Moving from a patriarchal society means that gender issues are important, and so on. However, the EHRC also suffers from its own history. It was formed by the bringing together of a number of bodies that did similar work (the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission) but only on one inequality each. There was hope for ‘joined up thinking’ whereby the way that individuals’ multiple identities combine to form injustice could be addressed. Furthermore, other injustices could be addressed.

I was actually a researcher on a small study that informed the creation of the body, Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs’  Talking Equality (2003). I remember that the interviews and focus groups added a further source of inequality that got lost from the agenda: class. Indeed, if we added class to the mix it would help with some of the other injustices. It is surely more just (in terms of numbers), and so a higher priority and more likely to be supported by the public, to argue for equal pay for female cleaners than to examine the numbers of women in boardrooms. Similarly, addressing literacy problems across the board, and especially in white and Asian working class families, should be more important than BME business initiatives.

To go back to Trevor, and what I think he’s missing in his replies to the MP, just addressing the five or six ‘inequalities’ identified so far doesn’t bring justice. I know he was probably bored of the correspondence by this point but this exchange is particularly problematic:

Should anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended “to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)”?

“The answer to your question is no.”

Now I haven’t read anything about bald or short people, but there’s plenty of literature on discrimination or prejudice against fat people. Trevor Philips should have said that the body works to eradicate prejudice wherever it is found, and that if a group or type of people is found to be unjustly discriminated against then measures could be needed, perhaps laws, perhaps not. He’s fallen into a trap: he didn’t want to play into the anti-PC brigade (imagine the Daily Mail headlines re. short people), but instead he’s telling us that only some groups deserve protection, so we can have Daily Mail headlines saying that the body only protects ‘minorities’, so can be cut by a Tory government. A broader support for human rights and tackling discrimination is more likely to be achieved if it isn’t about sectional interests, or the different, but is for everyone and is promoted as being for everyone.

P.S. If you think that other, less talked about, prejudices are never as serious as racism, remember that one young woman was recently murdered for being a goth.

Leave a comment

Filed under communities, Gender, government, media, News, Politicians

Sarkozettes II: more sloppy journalism

‘They don’t come from the usual elitist white male cookie-cutter mould of French politicians. They have grassroots political experience rather than coming from the old boys’ club of grandes écoles [the elite universities that educate the bulk of France’s high-flyers]’

Vivienne Walt, the Paris correspondent for Time magazine quoted in the Guardian

After my last post I re-read the Observer article and found this quote I’d missed. Well I knew that Rama Yade was at Sciences-Po, so I thought I’d check how realistic this assessment was. Of the six female ministers mentioned in the article, five had been to the grandes ecoles, and the other is a doctor of pharmacy and an ex-MEP. One of them, Michele Alliot-Marie, was a lecturer in politics and law at the Sorbonne, and it doesn’t get much more grandes ecoles than that.

Interestingly, two of Sarkozy’s seven female cabinet ministers didn’t go to one of the grandes ecoles (Rama Yade isn’t a cabinet minister), and these were the ones not mentioned in the Observer piece. Christine Boutin probably doesn’t fit their story because she’s of the religious right and involved in the pro-life movement, and the other Christine Albanel, was a senior civil servant and worked for Chirac when he was PM and President, hardly grass-roots.

The analysis presented in the quote above is quite simply nonsense. Hold the front page, ‘government still populated by the posh and privileged’; even if one or two had humble beginnings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, News, Politicians

Sarkozettes: Lost in translation or sloppy journalism?

This is slightly off topic for me, because it isn’t really about social science and its misuses, but a more simple issue of translation. Because people in different places/cultures, and even different people in the same ‘place’ see the world in different ways, use different systems and language, you have to be careful to dig behind the meanings. Today’s Observer has a feature on Sarkozettes, who look remarkably like Blair’s Babes all those years ago. At least it’s not just about Carla Bruni today! Anyway, under a photo of Rama Yade it said ’31-year old Rama Yade was working as an administrator when Sarkozy promoted her to minister of foreign affairs’. Now, I’m not knocking her achievement, and 31 is very young to get a job like this, but the Observer’s language makes it sound almost unbelievable (particularly the UK’s got a really young foreign secretary in his early 40s) and I was also surprised I hadn’t heard of her. Of course, the journalist’s turn of phrase leads us to think of the minister of foreign affairs, who is actually the Bernard Kouchne, who’s 68 and not so young. More importantly, the word ‘administrator’ has very different connotations either side of the channel. Here it usually means someone carrying out tasks in an office on behalf of someone else, and often with little pay or responsibility. ‘Admin’ staff are often in the lowest ranks of an organisation, and usually undervalued and overworked. In France an administrator is a senior member of the civil service, as seen in the name of the Ecole nationale d’administration, which is their equivalent to our National School of Government. I don’t know if Rama Yade had time there while working as a civil servant, but she’s went to Sciences Po, which educates the French political elite, and was doing a high-flying job in government. This reminded me of two issues. First, the way comparing different places, cultures or whatever is fraught with translation problems. There was a story about French and British national identity (arguing that French national identity is stronger for immigrants to France), while forgetting that in Britain we’ve got England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so if some people choose these the statistics are skewed. Second, it reminded me how sloppy journalism can be. I know next to nothing about French politics and imagine the author probably knows more than me, but she left ‘government administrator’ unexplained so that whoever did the photo caption, who probably knows less than me, just took it as written. Just as a statistic or social theory gets garbled by being passed from a researcher to a non-expert journalist to the public, a simple fact gets mistranslated because of a lack of expertise and a lack of care.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, News, Politicians, Uncategorized

Tyranny of the Average

Where to start? The use of ‘the average’ is possibly the thing that annoys me most in social and policy analysis. Essentially, taking complex distributions and reducing them to a single figure makes any subsequent analysis ridiculous. Political comments about ‘glass ceilings’ and the problem of leave for childcare are based on beliefs that cannot be inferred from a simple average.

I’m sure this problem will come up elsewhere (so many examples of this to debunk) but on this occasion I’ll use the annual figures about the gender pay gap. Latest figures suggest that the average woman earns 13% less per hour than the average man ( http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=167). Here the ‘average’ is the median, and the difference in the means is slightly higher.

I’m so glad that at least government statisticians are numerate. They use the median and not the mean because of the skewing effect of the very highest earners (http://www.womenandequalityunit.gov.uk/pay/pay_facts.htm), hurrah! Once you get to the media, however, all accuracy is lost as everything is just reported as an average (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3765535.stm) and the debate just ends up as an argument about whose figures are accurate without thinking about what they mean.

This all begs a further question, though. If high earners cause skewing, are there any other peculiarities in the distribution that might be worth investigating.

The distributions below (Microsoft chose pink and blue, not me) are hypothetical, but are designed to fit my feeling that there may be two populations in the workplace. One population is in professional career jobs, and the other in non-career jobs, which may be white collar e.g. secretarial, but are unlikely to lead to the operational and managerial roles that graduates take. I’ve also taken the liberty of imagining that there isn’t any cross-over in these wages between the two groups: everyone earning £25 or over is a professional, and all those earning less are not.


 

In this distribution, the mean and the median of female earnings is considerably less than that of men.

However, this difference can be entirely due to differences in the pay of the non-professional jobs.

If the non-professional women are in low paying jobs that tend to have flexibility (caring, cleaning etc.) and the non-professional men are in higher paying jobs that require 8am-5pm (trades, engineering and so on) then their pay distributions pull the averages to different places. For these women, childcare and other caring / household requirements do affect their earnings.

At the top of the income scale there is absolute equality. Women are just as likely as men to be in the professional jobs, and have the same chances of progressing: there is no glass ceiling in this model, and no effect of childbirth for the professional classes.

The implications of this model, which fits with the averages usually given, are that all efforts to promote workplace equality should be aimed at the bottom of the income scale, whereas when you read the newspapers it seems to be all about career women. Using averages, without examining the whole distribution first, tells us little about what should be done.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, Statistics and simplicity