Showing a genuine interest in gender progress

If you were to use just one indicator of wellbeing or social progress, it would have to be longevity or happiness, wouldn’t it? Or you could combine the two to compare happy longevity around the world. On that measure, the whole world has seen unprecedented progress over the past century. But people often complain that inequality matters too, and that it’s getting worse. In terms of happy life years, too, the world is clearly becoming very much less unequal. But what about resources and issues like the gender pay gap?

In order to live well you need resources, and money is one important route to getting resources. So money matters for happiness. Being paid for working is one way of getting money, although particularly in richer countries there are other routes such as welfare regimes and savings. Gender pay gaps still matter, although their moral importance will decline as their significance for health and happiness declines. If more goods and services become free, and more states find ways of providing guaranteed basic income without dissuading able people from working, it’s possible to imagine a world where monetary inequalities matter a lot less.

But even for those who don’t really depend on pay, unfair inequalities in pay are still of some moral concern since they may signal inequalities of respect or dignity. And if there’s a strong pattern of gender inequality in pay, even if we don’t know how much of that gap is unfair it can still be damaging not just to underpaid women but also to the fabric of society. Both the gap and the perception of its unfairness are important to the social good. So it really matters that we look at pay gaps – and other major gender-related discrepancies – and try to understand their moral importance in intelligent and nonpartisan ways.

Jordan Peterson and the quality of public debate

So the recent media circus over Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman does relate to social inequalities that most of us ought to have some interest in. Sadly, even Peterson has to concede that although the debate has raised awareness of some of the nuances required for serious discussions of inequalities, it also perpetuated silly polarisation of identity-based viewpoints and was embarrassingly devoid of intellectual depth.

Among the more instructive moments were Peterson’s reminders that it is unwise to confuse inequalities with unfairness (e.g. reading gender pay gaps as simple evidence of injustice without enquiring into the causes), and that equalising opportunities is a more sensible objective for gender reform than trying to bring about overall ‘gender equality’. These points are so simple and so rational that it is hard to imagine why so many people get them wrong. But they were overshadowed by the interviewer’s ill-fated and desperate attempts to expose Peterson as an ‘offensive’ person and a ‘provocateur’. Cathy Newman’s big mistake was to approach the interview with no intention of using it to enrich public discourse about unequal pay or gender-related unfairness. In trying to score partisan points, she lost miserably . And in a way, so did we all, because an intellect as sharp as Peterson’s is far too sharp to waste on pointless gender wars.

World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017

If divisive polarisation were confined to entertainment media it would be problematic enough in itself. But we also need to realise that the quality of debate on some kinds of inequality – particularly on ‘race’ and gender – has reached a desperately low standard in academia and in global research organizations too. I’m prompted to write this piece not just by the Peterson-Newman circus, but by The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017. This is a recent prominent example of the very common failure of major international development agencies to grasp even the most basic principles of evidence, inequality, and unfairness. These annual reports are important sources of public information on global trends, and this one highlights legitimate concerns that in some important ways global progress towards ‘gender parity’ may be stalling or even going into ‘reverse’.

When agencies adopt explicitly chauvinistic approaches by focusing on women as victims of violence or inequality, this often shows a worrying degree of naive man-blaming and a lack of concern for male disadvantages. But at least if the labeling is clear, we are forewarned about any bias. The WEF report goes a step further by using ‘Gender Gap’ as a pseudonym for ‘female disadvantage’ and thereby carrying out a disingenuous pretence at rationality.

Worse, they try to get away with this by not only ignoring some extremely important areas of male disadvantage, but also by pretending that life outcomes such as longevity and happiness don’t matter as much as things like income and parliamentary representation. Implausibly, they explicitly claim that the emphasis of the report is on ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘inputs’. Yet they rank countries mainly on the basis of activities (e.g. economic participation and political representation) rather than on the basis of desired life outcomes such as wellbeing, happiness, and longevity.

Regarding happiness statistics, it might be argued that we’re not yet at the point where reliable global rankings and comparisons can be made. But if you’re genuinely interested in life outcomes, it’s pretty arrogant just to dismiss self-declared life satisfaction or happiness as if this were irrelevant to understanding trends in ‘gender gaps’. Perhaps WEF’s researchers simply distrust both men’s and women’s own views on how well their lives are going. Perhaps they genuinely believe that numbers relating to income or parliamentary representation give a better indication of comparative wellbeing than life satisfaction.

But perhaps (actually, no, not really perhaps at all) they knew perfectly well that if you look at self-reports on desired life outcomes, ‘gender gaps’ look very different from the unashamedly biased picture their report portrays.

Respecting women’s and men’s own views on their wellbeing

National happiness surveys, now superbly summarised in World Happiness Reports, show some interesting trends and international differences in both aggregate satisfactions and in terms of male:female comparisons. To cut a rough swathe through some of the diversities and nuances of the findings, basically self-report surveys are more likely to find women happier than men than vice versa; there is remarkably little correlation between gender inequalities in resources and rights versus gender inequalities in happiness; but there is strong correlation between national aggregate happiness and reduction of gender inequalities in resources and rights.

If we are beginning to agree, worldwide, that statistics on wellbeing are worth gathering and that they may provide insights that we don’t get from ‘economic’ indicators such as GDP and personal income, we really must start applying this way of thinking to all areas of social planning, including gender reform.

Even-handed respect for female and male disadvantages

The second major blunder of the WEF Gender report is much more blatant and much more morally reprehensible. Among the so-called ‘outcome’ indicators they use, only ‘health and survival’ genuinely seem to indicate patterns of experience in desired life outcomes. Participation in education, the economy, and politics all do matter, of course, but statistics on these mainly reflect inputs and activities, not wellbeing or happiness. We all know people who are highly educated, have successful careers in business or politics, and yet are unhealthy and miserable.

So health and survival matter very much indeed, and in the absence of any use of happiness information they matter far more than anything else in this survey. Yet the WEF analysts have very explicitly decided only to use health and survival information up to the point at which women’s health and survival equals men’s. Hence in their ranking system, 34 countries are simply ranked equal first on that indicator, on the grounds that women are faring better than men. This begs the question, what kind of self-respecting economist would claim that Russia, where men die 12 years earlier than women, is at the top of the world rankings on ‘gender equality’ in terms of survival? Read that again, gasp, and send the question on to any friends you may have that are involved in any way in the business of charting ‘gender gaps’.

So we have a major global report on trends in inequality that shows wilful disinterest in people’s own views on how well they are faring, and a callous disregard for any kinds of male disadvantage such as longevity. If health and longevity matter, do they not matter to men as well as women? And if they implicitly believe that men don’t care about longevity (suppose men in some countries prefer to live shorter lives in which they enjoy the benefits of being richer and more powerful than women), wouldn’t the decent thing have been to ask about this? On the other hand, if the researchers implicitly agree that in general women worldwide also enjoy longer and happier lives than men, and if no kinds of male disadvantage are of any moral concern to them, shouldn’t they have said so from the start and not bothered with the lies about being interested in ‘gender gaps’ in life outcomes?

Just as a significant portion of most gender pay gaps are likely attributable to free choices made by women, so a significant portion of male disadvantages in longevity and educational outcomes may be down to men’s free lifestyle choices. In both cases, causes are worth investigating before jumping to the conclusion that gendered disadvantage is ‘unfair’. Regarding resources and processes like income and education, however, there’s no reason to suppose that disparities are inherently undesirable either, since it’s not in any obvious way harmful to either individuals or society if women earn less or if men don’t progress as far with formal education as women do. In the case of longevity, however, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to conclude that premature male mortality was morally acceptable for either men or women, regardless of what’s causing it.

Easy ways forward

What could we do, then, to improve the quality and usefulness of research and debate on gender inequalities?

  • First, anyone who wants to be taken seriously must show an interest in a wide variety of inequalities, and respect diverse views on which of these matter, and on why they matter.
  • Second, respecting the multiple causes of inequalities they must carefully distinguish between inequality and unfairness.
  • Third, although unequal inputs and participation are worth monitoring, ultimately it is inequalities in valued life outcomes that matter most.
  • Fourth, if a ‘gender gap’ in something important (e.g. education or longevity) is a moral concern when women are disadvantaged, it’s a fair bet that it ought also to be a moral concern when men are disadvantaged.

A final, more general lesson is that we need to use the concept of ‘equality’ with caution. Social equalization is often a useful and important pursuit, and ‘equality’ as a loose slogan has a basic utopian nobility worth respecting. But only dangerously naive ideologues believe in total equality between women and men, or any other kind of total equality among humans. To be human is to be different, in interesting and often morally significant ways, from other human beings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *