Even Without the Barrier, a Mountain is Still a Mountain

A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure until he says that someone pushed him.
Elmer G. Letterman

The discussion on the other blog is finished (for now), and yup, it was interesting. Not in the sense of hearing new arguments, but at least my view on the issue became a bit clearer. The discussion was about gender equality and — among others — touched the issues of quotas for women and special assistance measures.

The main issue I have with quotas for subgroups (e.g., women, ethnic minorities, etc.) is that they do not work. They destroy what they claim to achieve. If people need role models to see that they, themselves, can make it in certain fields, than these role models have to make it on a level playing field. The competition must be fair. Otherwise the message is: Yes, you can make it, but not on your own. You need support — support only available to you, or (even worse) positions only available to you.

This kind of “special eduction” and “special placement” taints not only people who advance, it also hurts people who did or would have made it without it. They will always have to defend themselves that they got the job due to their hard work, not because there was a quota to fulfill.

What’s more, any courses offered as assistance measures — with the exception of purely biological issues — have detrimental effects if sex is chosen as selection criteria. Just imagine any issue that is predominantly associated with women in large organizations, e.g., strong leadership, or speaking up for oneself. While these issues might be associated with women, they are general issues. There are also men who have these issues (the stereotypical introverted engineer comes to mind), and there are also women who do not have these issues. Even if the distribution is 80:20, i.e., 80% of women need this assistance measure and 20% of men do need it as well, using sex is inherently problematic.

By using making it a “gendered issue”, it

  • suggests to the 80% of women who need the course that it’s a women’s problem, i.e., that women are somehow “defective”
  • screws the 20% of men who would have profited by the course content (not to mention the organization they work for), who are excluded just because they have the “wrong” sex
  • screws the 20% of women who do not need this course, who are knowledgeable and skillful in that area, yet are included as “need special education” (way to go to undermine these women!)
  • suggests to the 80% of men who do not need this course that women aren’t equal, as they need special education to make up for their inherent deficits

So, why sex-specific courses, when we are able to diagnose who needs which kind of support and select people who need support, instead of limiting support to specific sub-groups? Or even worse, trying to set up quotas for positions?

Well, there’s money to be made by people offering these courses, who can then also feel good about it.

But what about getting the best people for the job? And what about fairness? Personal Interests? Individual freedom? Treating people as individuals instead of groups. How is one person somehow liable for the success or failure of other people, just because they have the same sex? Yes, more successful people in organizations might be male, but this does not mean that other male people profit by it. Even insider relationships cover only a very small number of people — and not necessarily only men. And they aren’t as worse as a quota.

But doesn’t the difference in men and women on top of organizations show that the competition is unfair? That women are systematically discriminated against?

Actually, no, I don’t think so.

Doing a career where you want to end up on top of an organization is extremely hard. You have to make it to the top of the pyramid (or one of the pyramids, if you “just” want to attain C-level). There is insane competition with a lot of people, and the competition gets harder and harder the higher you get. Positions get less frequent and there is a survival of the fittest at work — the smart and tough ones survive. Personally, I think it even makes sense to try to use sexism as a kind of weapon, to try to get a rival out of the competition this way. But the thing is, it’s not because this person is female, it’s because some people still think it can be used as a weapon in a very tough competition. But I also think that no method can be as easily foiled as sexism — as it is socially looked down upon.

Because the times do have changed. What it comes down to is this — there have been times when people were excluded from certain professions — and that included many men due to their social background as well. But today the barriers are gone. Everyone can attempt to climb that mountain, try to make it to the top. If a person wants this and is willing to make sacrifices — hell, go for it, no matter the sex, no matter the color, no matter anything else. And many people try it, albeit more men than women. But it’s still a mountain. It’s still hard. It takes an incredible amount of persistence and being able to face down a lot of resistance. And most people who try it will drop out some time on the way. That’s just the nature of this competition.

We should be careful not to confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, otherwise we sacrifice quality, fairness, and freedom for something that merely looks good if you don’t look closely.