a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Feminism and the top end of the payscale

Class is a deep dividing line in feminism for two, mutually compatible, reasons: One is about the strategic use of limited time and energy in the feminist movement. The interests of poor and working-class women often diverge from the interests of the more privileged, hence the need to set priorities. This is what my previous post was about.

But the more important reason – captured these days by the agenda of the Feminism for the 99% movement – is that the problems of women who make it to the top are parasitic on a structure of the labour market and schedule of rewards that should not exist in the first place. This second complaint against lean-in feminism (sometimes and, I think, mistakenly, identified as “liberal feminism”) is not merely about misplaced priorities, but about identifying feminism with the gender cosmetisation of deeply unjust existing arrangements. The worry with the upper class feminism is, as Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser put it, that “[i]ts real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women to rise to the top.”

The mistake, then, is to be meritocratic about top end positions. Meritocracy is wrong because the very top positions to which women have less access then men – CEOs, executive boards etc. – are compensated way beyond what any position would be in a just society. The compensation is partly material – pay and other benefits – and partly in terms of status and power. No just society would accept inequalities in money, prestige and authority as wide as those between people who occupy today’s top positions and today’s worse-off individuals.

In a forthcoming paper, and elsewhere, I use two hypothetical cases to trigger the intuition that no one can have a moral claim to social positions that are themselves unjust. First, imagine a society where some people hold slaves but women have no right to property – perhaps some ancient societies were like this. The ban on women holding slaves was sexist and in one sense wrongful (more about this below); yet, because morality forbids the holding of slaves, no woman in that society had a claim to slave-holding.

Second, think about successful thieves (and assume they operate in a just society.) If they contribute equally to robbery, but then give women a lesser share of the loot, we’re right to call them sexist. But this doesn’t give the women in their group any claim to more loot. They have no claim to any loot at all. Indeed, in our world women are well represented amongst celebrities in the entertainment industry and in sports, but, every now and then, it turns out that they are payed significantly less then their male counterparts, often merely on account of being women – that is, with no economic reason to explain it. I believe that complaints against the sexism which leaves them with less pay is no basis for a claim to higher salaries.

But then, what’s the moral significance of sexism, that leads to discriminating against women holding slaves or being CEOs, against getting promotions to unjust positions and against receiving the same share of the loot as male thieves? These women do have a grievance, namely that sexist discrimination is an expressive wrong. It marks them as second-class citizens whose interests are less important than men’s. If so it’s all women who have a grievance in such cases, because the sexist message is a message about all. Women, of course, have a general claim to equal opportunities for jobs and promotions, and equal rewards, as men. It’s just that the claim is to much lesser rewards than even discriminated women at the top end of the payscale end up with. The special claim of women who suffer sexist discrimination is to levelling down, not to levelling up. Acknowledging this is not enough to unite, on the same platform, the feminism for the 99% and the feminism for the most successful women. But it might be a solid bridge across the growing gulf between the two.




I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



Unlocking care in prisons


Consultation that silences


  1. Thanks a lot for this great post. I think I agree with the general argument. Still, I have a doubt regarding the burden that your proposal would put on women (or members of other disadvantaged groups) who have reached some “top” positions (possibly with great difficulties) and who are asked to not accept higher pays (or to fight for lower pays). Isn’t that a lot to ask? Collectively, we may have a duty to fight for lower top salaries, but is it fair to ask members of less advantaged groups who have made it to the top to renounce to what they were certainly expecting to get? Even if it is in fact fair, is it realistic, as getting a higher pay was probably part of their motivation? This is really a question, and I am personally unsure about what to think about it.
    Thanks again,

    • Thank you Louis for this question! I don’t think we can ask them not to accept the same pay. I merely say that they don’t have a claim to such pay. But sometimes we have permission to accept things to which we don’t have claims – for instance, things that good luck throws our way although justice does not entitle us to them. There is an important separate question how much one is permitted to keep from these resources. In some circumstances there’s a strong case for divesting oneself of what one has that’s above one’s fair share. Do you find this answer convincing?

      • Thanks it is very helpful. I agree that there is an important difference between “having a claim” and having merely a “permission”.
        I still wonder who may be the right agent of justice here. That’s a question of strategy I guess. Who is best placed to make things change at this level?
        Thanks again,

  2. Mollie Gerver

    This was an an excellent summary of your article, which I also really enjoyed. One very small point: you write “[m]eritocracy is wrong because the very top positions to which women have less access then men – CEOs, executive boards etc. – are compensated way beyond what any position would be in a just society.” It seems that some meritocracy is wrong not merely because individuals are compensated beyond what they would receive in a just society, but because individuals are compensated beyond what they should receive in an unjust society. The two sometimes come apart. For example, imagine a society is unjust and, as a result, there are few functioning methods of transferring money between towns. X pays Y money for her services and, in a just society, Y would be entitled to only half of this money because the rest could be transferred to someone worse-off in another town. In this society, it is not wrong for Y to keep all of her wages even though she would not keep all of these wages in a just society. (In contrast, it would be wrong if society was both unjust and there were functioning methods of transferring money, which is more similar to the sorts of cases you have in mind.)

    • Hi Mollie, thanks for the kind words! Yes, I fully agree with you. I didn’t complicate the argument of the paper – let alone of the blog post – with this distinction, but I elaborate on it in a different paper.

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