If we play gender equality like chess, it’s still check against women

Fear no more, fellow females and anybody interested in gender equality, research is supporting ‘optimism about a better world to come’. Thus tells us Tyler Cowen in the New York Times, and he is not talking about any old optimism but about that of John Stuart Mill, one of the great old thinkers of economics. So it’s gender equality optimism with an extra-dose of gravitas and academic credibility. In his NYT piece Cowen reviews two recent books that study gender inequality through an economics lens. According to these studies, women ‘are perceived as easier to take advantage of in … economic settings’ and ‘participate less in many public settings, especially those in which real power is exercised.’ But ‘once women achieve a critical mass in a particular area, their participation grows rapidly’, says Cowen.

Women have ‘made great strides’ in law, medicine and academia, Cowen points out, similar to what happened in competitive chess where the increased presence of women initiated a ‘cycle of positive reinforcement’. Because of such positive reinforcement and because ‘incentives matter and … can be changed’, Cowen is optimistic about the longer-term future of gender equality and about John Stuart Mill’s predictions coming true.

It is easy to get enraged with what floats on the surface of Cowen’s argument. The complacency of longer-term optimism about Mill’s predictions of 1869, for instance – no rush there then. Let’s not get hurried by the prospect of one half of mankind not excelling (Cowen’s choice of words) on an equal footing for another 150 years then, shall we. The underlying linking of equality to performance, suggesting that equal opportunities are not everybody’s basic right but are the reward for those who aim to excel and make ‘great strides’. Some readers’ comments rightfully ask if the desirable solution is really to encourage women to be less cooperative and more opportunistic instead of incentivesing a different behaviour in men. And while we’re on incentives, if they are the key to everything, why not ask what was, after 2008, the incentive to maintain male dominance in banking and finance? The pleasantness of the testosterone-fuelled macho culture and the resounding socio-economic benefits it resulted in?

In his review, Cowen is actually notably vague about the exact incentives for gender equality that could change the name of the game (the economic one, not chess). But I have no doubts that he could easily remedy that omission – that inequality may be Pareto-efficient but not necessarily a stable equilibrium is Economics 101. And while one might find these points insulting, infuriating or, probably worst of all for an economist, inconsistent, they are comparatively superficial.

One of the real problems with Cowen’s argument is a little blemish on the shine of economics that is as old as John Stuart Mill’s writing: the implications of its assumptions, footnotes, subordinate clauses. The fine print that always clearly states under which circumstances certain outcomes of economic models are likely to occur but that equally always has to leave the centre stage to the headline finding. ‘Once women achieve a critical mass in a particular area, their participation grows rapidly’, Cowen confidently states, drawing attention away from what reads like an afterthought ‘at least after basic norms of inclusion have been established.’ What those basic norms are and how they might be established he doesn’t elaborate upon – probably a technicality from the point of behavioral economics modelling, but a key issue for the reality of gender equality.

Because it is exactly the establishing of basic norms that is the problem. We have gender equality Acts and Duties galore across the developed economies but, as the Global Gender Gap report 2013 evidenced once more, gender equality we have not. Why? Because the norms codified in those Acts and Duties are not established, not in the workplace and not in society.

The norms that are established still work against women. Gendered perceptions of what men and women bring to the workplace are a point that Cowen himself reports on, summarising findings that women are perceived as easier to take advantage of. The Ban Bossy campaign has prominently demonstrated – and challenged – gendered perceptions of assertiveness. Gendered perceptions of entrepreneurship reproduce gender inequality. The list could go on.

The next set of norms working against the inclusion of women on an equal footing are those governing the organisation of our workplaces. Cultures of presenteeism and expectations that employees are available 24/7 and geographically mobile discriminate against those with caring commitments – who tend to be female.

Next up is the norm that recruitment especially for the more senior and influential positions in our knowledge economy is through personal networks. While highly functional for the recruiter, such practices again discriminate against women. Networks are, of course, forged and maintained at times difficult to reconcile with family responsibilities. But importantly, as Ros Gill points out, the semi-private nature of networking events results in women being perceived as females firstly and professionals at best secondly.

And of course in many industries overt and covert sexist behaviour is still the norm – academic studies of, for instance, engineering or management support women’s accounts collected by projects such as Everyday Sexism.

And that is why Cowen’s qualification about basic norms having been established is so important: as long as norms such as the above govern our worlds of work – or indeed society more broadly – gender equality faces serious obstacles. Yes, it is possible to change incentives and yes, cycles of positive reinforcement can play a part. But the reason that 150 years after Mill’s essay we still face such profound gender inequality in the developed economies (let alone in the developing ones) is that we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to establishing those basic norms of inclusion. If we don’t address those norms, the gender gap might, as Cowen puts it, ‘eventually close’, but we will need a very long-term perspective. I’m not sure that’d be grounds for optimism – but it would, of course, leave ample time to play chess.

Doris Ruth Eikhof also writes for the Management Is Too Important Not To Debate blog, where some of her Work in Progress pieces are cross-posted.

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