a blog about philosophy in public affairs

“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.In the second post I raised the question of whether we should care about lack of meritocracy when it comes to women’s access to some very privileged positions: Are inequalities of opportunities between women and men for very highly rewarded jobs, or inequalities of pay once they land these jobs, unjust?Assume that such positions – for instance, CEO of a multinational corporation or celebrity in the entertainment industry – are themselves unjust, on account of the pay and other benefits attached to them, exceeding what justice permits. Or assume they entail morally unjustified hierarchies of authority or prestige. In these cases, lack of meritocratic allocation – including the glass ceiling – doesn’t raise a concern of justice.

But not all the positions of advantage in a society are excessively rewarded, or entail illegitimate hierarchies of power and status. Many of them could well exist in a just society. An example close to home are some academic jobs – at least in academic environments that are relatively egalitarian both in terms of the distribution of job benefits and in avoiding unjustified hierarchies. For such jobs, too, there may be gender discrimination. Indeed, the numerous efforts to overcome biases against women – for instance, the Gendered Conference Campaign – are built on the assumption that women have been, and possibly still are, discriminated against. I fully share the assumption, and I believe that women are wronged by discrimination against them. But I don’t think the grievance to which discrimination gives raise is one of insufficient opportunities. Nor should we think about remedying the discrimination against women as a way of levelling the playing field.

In a recent article I explain this view. The argument relies on a premise that is, in part, empirical: that most people who have a shot at positions of advantage are likely to already have had more than their fair share of opportunities for such positions. If you endorse a version of meritocracy understood as fair equality of opportunities, then meritocracy requires that people’s opportunities be determined by native talent and ambition alone. But our societies don’t nurture children equally: factors like class, orrace, or quality of the parent-child relationship, are strong determinants of nurturing. Given the great inequalities in the cultivation of people’ talents, it is likely that many who would find themselves in competitions for particular jobs if we really lived in a society governed by fair equality of opportunities don’t even get to enter those particular competitions in real societies. Their talents have not been cultivated enough to allow them to qualify formally. Most of the women who’d be competing for an academic job if the world was really meritocratic are most probably employed in entirely different lines of work and lack the kinds of degrees and other accomplishments that would qualify them for the academia. Or maybe you think about meritocracy more modestly, as requiring careers open to talents. In our societies, it is plausible that qualifications do not fully determine who is in the run-up for many positions of advantage; other things that matter greatly are variables such as friends, family, or the mere prestige of the educational institution with which one is affiliated matter. Given the great inequalities between individuals on these counts it is likely that many people who would compete for any particular position of advantage in a society that realised careers open to talents lack any chance in that particular competition in existing societies. Again, some will not even enter the competition, for lack of information and others won’t be give real consideration for the job because they lack the right social connections, pedigrees etc. If so, the majority of women who fail to obtain a desired academic job merely on account of their gender are likely to have already had more than their fair share of opportunities to that position thanks to better than average social relationships, etc.

We cannot have a claim to more than their fair share of opportunities for positions of advantage. If all this is correct, then most people – including of course women – who have a shot at positions of advantage lack a claim to more opportunities than they already have.

If so, then talk of equality of opportunity between women and men for (by assumption, permissible) positions of advantage is misleading. Even if we equalised the opportunities for such positions between the women and the men who actually aspire to them (here and now) we would not accomplish a goal that, as such, has obvious morally worth: we’d still leave out all those whose talents have been wrongfully left underdeveloped, and all those who have been excluded from competitions by their morally arbitrary lack of connection to the right people or sources of prestige.

We certainly ought to address discrimination against women in employment. Its wrong consists in the message sent concerning women’s lesser status. If, and to the extent to which, it is also wrong as a form of tilting the playing field, one must remember that well off women are, all things considered, on the winning side of a much larger tilted plying field. In the same article, I explain that we shoud considermeasures that counteract the expressive wrong of discrimination – for instance, women’s quotas. And, elsewhere, I issued a plea that one shouldn’t shy away from being (perceived as) a token woman, if need be. But it’s important to be clear about the right reasons behind affirmative action: we cannot level the playing field in a way that is morally compelling by applying anti-discrimination measures at the point of employment. At that point, we can only level the playing field between, mostly, the already unfairly advantaged women and men.

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.



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  1. Claire Khaw

    Some questions occur to me after reading your post.

    1) How are you going to decide which women belong to which class?

    2) Wouldn’t it be simpler to restore the patriarchy and let women choose their husbands in a society where men are more marriageable and likely to take their marriage vows seriously because they want to parent their legitimate offspring properly?

    3) Would you agree that Western malaise can be traced to feminism and the pill which caused the Sex Revolution?

    4) Would you agree that the West is a matriarchy? (A matriarchy is a society that prioritises the preferences of unmarried mothers who casually conceived and casually parented their illegitimate offspring. All advanced civilisations are patriarchies and all primitive, declining, extinct and soon to be extinct societies are matriarchies. To discover that your society is a matriarchy is to discover that your society has cancer. The perfect patriarchy – 100% married parents. The perfect matriarchy – 100% unmarried parents.)

    5) Would you agree that men and women who want become married parents or stay married parents in order to properly parent their legitimate offspring would be happier if their society were a patriarchy so that the preferences of married parents would be prioritised?

    6) Would you agree that feminism operates by bribing and distracting men with extramarital sex to keep them quiescent under the oppression of their matriarchy?

    7) Would you agree that in a matriarchy, all men are lower in status to the unmarried mother, including POTUS? (In a closely fought election, you can be your bottom dollar that President Trump will not be criticising the morals of unmarried mothers whose offspring are the source of the Western malaise of degeneracy.)

    8) Would you agree that most Western men and most women now have no prospect or intention of becoming married parents?

    9) Would you say that it is the feminist agenda to destroy the institution of marriage in order to destroy the patriarchy which it equates with domestic violence?

    10) Do you as a feminist support the undermining of the institution of marriage as part and parcel of the feminist goal?

    11) Would you agree that feminism is a product of atheism?

  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks, Anca!
    I had never thought of this kind of discrimination as a form of expressive injustice rather than a breach of equality of opportunity, but the argument is quite convincing!

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