Thursday, September 01, 2005

Implicit Discrimination

An interesting distinction that came up when our political philosophy class covered feminism last semester, is between explicit and implicit discrimination. Explicit discrimination is when the 'rules' explicitly dictate that people should be treated differently simply in virtue of the group they belong to. So, if an employer decides to pay women less than men for doing the exact same job, that's arbitrary explicit discrimination. This is quite obviously unacceptable, and fortunately never happens any more (or so I assume).

When people say that feminism is no longer necessary, they are generally thinking of explicit discrimination. But feminists are also concerned about implicit discrimination (what they call 'dominance'), whereby women are systematically excluded on the basis of other (non-arbitrary) characteristics that they disproportionately exhibit. A typical example is height or strength restrictions. If, say, military equipment has been designed with men in mind, then many women might not be able to use it. But the reason they are rejected is non-arbitrary: they are too short or slight to use the equipment properly; the mere fact of their sex has no intrinsic (or 'explicit') relevance to their exclusion. Nevertheless, feminists argue, if the real effect of the guidelines is to disproportionately disadvantage women, then this is still sexist, and ought to be countered, if possible, to open up these opportunities to more women.

Now, I think there's something to this argument. But it isn't what the feminists think. Sex simply isn't relevant to the above problem. Sure, it's unfortunate if short women have their options curtailed. But it is every bit as unfortunate for short men who find themselves in the same situation. The problem with the guidelines is that they exclude short people. The victims of "discrimination" here (I put it in scare-quotes because it is, at least, non-arbitrary) are short people, not women. Sex has nothing to do with it, and it strikes me as weirdly obsessive and one-eyed for feminists to try to turn this into a gender issue. Sure, most of the people affected happen to be female, but that is a mere historical accident. They are being "discriminated" against in virtue of their height, not in virtue of their sex. There is no reason to focus on the latter aspect here.

More generally, we should reject the notion of "implicit discrimination". It has no importance independently of the explicit "discrimination" that it rests upon. However, feminists are right that we should critically examine even non-arbitrary "discrimination". Sure, it makes sense to exclude short people given the current equipment. But maybe we should be looking into alternative equipment. If our current system is closing off options for a large number of people, we should look at possible reforms, to improve the opportunities available to those people. Of course, the decision to make changes must be made on a case-by-case basis, informed by the specific costs and benefits involved. I'm suspicious that crying "sexism" is a rhetorical ploy to try to brush over these details.

Anyway, the real issue here is simply increasing people's opportunities. "Discrimination" is a red herring. If women are being denied jobs because they're too short, this is bad because - and only because - individuals are having their goals obstructed. We should want to remove such obstructions. But it is not a gender issue. If caring jobs are underpaid and underappreciated in our society, then this is an issue for care-givers (and receivers!). It is not a gender issue. Paid parental leave? Again, it's an issue for parents (and children!). It is not a gender issue. There are no gender issues anymore. (In law and policy, I mean. Obviously there are cultural issues regarding pernicious gender stereotypes and expectations, etc. Belle Waring is excellent on this sort of stuff.) To claim otherwise is to fetishize groups over the individuals that comprise them; the wrongness of which will be the topic of my next post.


  1. I agree, pity you cant convince everyone.
    Of course it is not surprising that feminists (or other "ists") might get caught up with policies that to some extent help their disadvantaged group.

  2. I think what feminisits and such would say, right or not, is that the issue isn't implicit discrimination as you define it, but what might be called covert and overt. The idea is not a difference of target, but whether the rules come out and say it, or it's done without admission that it's going on.

    For example, a news network did an experiment where two college students went and tried to get jobs, apartments, etc. in the southern US with secret cameras rolling. (This was fairly recently, this decade or the 90's). Amazingly similar types, involved in same activities, dressed the same, even both had glasses. Difference, one was white, one was black. The white one was consistently treated better. However, only once did the people giving different treatment mention race, and this was when the black student wasn't present.

  3. Oh, no, that's different. I certainly agree with you that covert (often subconscious) discrimination is a genuine problem. But that's not what "domination" is about. I am quite specifically talking about when "women are systematically excluded on the basis of other (non-arbitrary) characteristics that they disproportionately exhibit."

    Insofar as feminists and such are concerned with covert discrimination, I agree with them. But they (at least some of them) are also concerned about "domination", and that's the topic of this post.

  4. The problem for a employer thinking of hiring a white or black man or a woman or a man (or a short/tall person or ugly/pretty) is that interviews are to a large extent about decieving the employer (and the employer decieving the employee). The employer has a large amount of information but not very much information that they know clearly what it means.

    Unfortunatly one piece of information they have is the race of the individual and, probably, a general knowledge of crime, education and other such stats for those groups.

    I expect you would find a difference between all sorts of other groups too - (which also makes me wonder how it is possible for them to have controlled a white vs black experiment although I expect their conclusion was correct). Also I note that white people might have a tougher time at black offices if it is cultural mismatches that the employers are scared of (or they might find it easier based on the aforementioned logic).

    Of course not hiring those groups perpetuates those problems but it only takes a small group of them to do so to create the problem.

  5. Well, that brings up serious issues in the ethics of generalization. I think that using such statistical information is morally dubious, myself.

  6. I agree becaue there are public good issues. But to realise the mgnitude of the problem we must realise we may be enforcing irrationality inorder to achive utilitarianism.


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