#Sexism: There’s not very many women on the Board? So what?

NUS Scotland today said that universities should appoint more women to their boards and if they don’t do so voluntarily, new legislation should be enacted that forces them to. Currently the average Scottish university board has about 30% female representation.

Instinctively I’m minded to agree with the goal if not the method. Let’s say 50% of students are female (I believe it’s actually more than that); it seems perfectly natural that the university’s staff should reflect that throughout the institution.

Why though?

I’ve never asked this question before but it came to me as I was discussing the issue (absent the all too frequent hysterics linked to it) with @MamaPartick on twitter today. I think it deserves some consideration. Why is it so important that the top of an institution reflect its mass? We’ll get onto equality of opportunity in a moment but as a kicker this seems pertinent.

My guess is that beyond our evidenced love of symmetry in everything, particularly in this country we’re attracted to the underdog and the numbers would seem to suggest women are being discriminated against. Having seen this, just as the US did with positive discrimination, we’re of a mind that pretty much any steps to attain ‘fairness’ are okay. Put another way, the ends justify the means.

The trouble is of course that “fair” is tricky. If as an employer operating under a doctrine of affirmative action you hire a black candidate, even if they were the best one you had, the suspicion that they were only hired because of their race will always be there. As a result, their career will be negatively affected by this policy even though it was introduced to help; they didn’t need that help but many will assume they were advantaged by it nonetheless.

This is to say nothing of the fact that top down equality, like trickle-down economics is not how you solve any problem. Washington D.C. is the blackest city in America and the schools are crap. By contrast, the relatively wealthy and white cities of Massachusetts have much better ones. It is a fact then that regardless of general levels of IQ, passion or whatever else you care to measure in children, those from Boston will likely fare much better in the workplace than those from D.C. They will do so because, deservedly or not, they are better equipped to function in a modern, high-paid job.

Imagine then that a young white man from Boston applies for the same job as a young black man from D.C. The Bostonian has a better academic record than his compatriot and is much more likely to succeed in the job. Instinctively we might want to lend a helping hand to the disadvantaged youth from further south, but is it fair to punish the kid from Boston because he had a good education? Of course not.

Fix the D.C. schools and everything else follows. If children are given the same opportunities then by the time they get to the interview, the playing field is level and no one feels bad about hiring the best candidate, regardless of what colour they are. I know Tony Blair is about as unpopular as modern UK politicians get, but why, “Education, education, education” isn’t the election promise of every single fucking party in the land is beyond me. Well, except for the Tories of course. They can buy education so don’t need to rely on the common shithouses the rest of us went to.

And so we return to women on university boards. There is no educational gap here, at least not in the sense discussed above. Indeed every set of results you’ll look at prove conclusively that girls do better in school than boys do. Interestingly, this is never seen as a problem we should address; simply a fact of life. “Why are we failing boys?” isn’t a common query. Read into that what you will.

This continues into tertiary education. Most university students are women. Their academic prowess continues. So up until interview day at least, there can be no generalised claim of discrimination against them and indeed at interview stage, there is existing legislation preventing sexual discrimination. Where much jolliness stems from is the Human Rights Act 1998 (you know, that pesky thing the Tories and UKIP want to get rid of), specifically Article 14 which says, “Don’t discriminate, you fucking dick.” [Exact quote.]

It’s not alone either; the EU (the other thing Tories and UKIP hate) isn’t keen on discrimination either. And as UKIP voters are happy to remind you, 140% of British law comes from Brussels so their ideas on equality pretty much hold firm in court.

The question arises then why there are so few women in the top jobs. The truth is both that there is a variety of reasons and truthfully that we don’t know if there is a main one. Anyone doubting that there is any discrimination is asking for it, because only the most foolish deny its existence whether deliberate or sub-conscious. Also undoubtedly true is the ugly idea that generally speaking there are some jobs that men are more attracted to than women. Women tend to be more attracted to teaching at primary level than tertiary. Should you doubt the veracity of this concept, consider why there are so few male nurses. Put simply it doesn’t appeal as a career to most men. The reasons for this can be debated but the end result is the same. Look at almost any job and you’ll find that one sex likes it more than the other.

We could go on but here the reasons are secondary to the main point of discussion. Not only how do we address the lack of women in these top positions, but should we make any effort to? Accepting for the sake of argument that the answer to the latter is yes, what I’m very clear on is that more legislation is not the answer, in part because it is patronising to women. When we already have anti-discrimination laws, any government explicitly saying that women are somehow too weak or ignorant to take advantage of them and need special treatment pisses on the gains for true equality that women have made over the past century. It is also discriminating against men, even acknowledging that it’s done with the best of intentions.

Phrased another way, if we have separate laws for the sexes, we don’t have equality.

I return to the question I posed at the start though. Why should we be so worried about how many women sit on university boards, or practice law or medicine, or sit on corporate boards for that matter? Women are not prohibited from these jobs. Indeed looking at many legal firms chase of equality through granting of training contracts and monetary grants, use of quotas and ‘non-discriminatory’ policies, there is an entirely non-facetious argument to be made that in getting in the door at least, in this area it is tougher for poor white men. The very suggestion of such in many circles however, will have you laughed out of the room, it appearing every bit as ridiculous as a man lodging a sexual harassment complaint against a female co-worker.

If women were banned from sitting on university boards, I’d campaign with them against such abhorrent practices. If a particular university is found to discriminate, those on the receiving end of it have every right to compensation. The mere fact though, that a university board has more men on it than women is not wrong in and of itself however.

The real crime would be appointing people to positions based on sex or race when there are superior candidates going for the same position. That’s real, unmistakable discrimination, and calling it affirmative or positive doesn’t change that.


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