© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the June 7, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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Proposed "Commissioner of Gender Equality" Is Taking Equality Too Far

It took a bit of digging to figure out what the Liberal party really had in mind after its announcement this week that it would create, if elected, a Commissioner of Gender Equality.  But after reading the “Backgrounder” issued with its press release, then delving into the documents referred to there, a clearer picture started to emerge.

The announcement said, sketchily, that the Commissioner would examine “with an equality lens” federal legislation and government policies.  She (or he?) would also have authority to “audit” federal government departments using something called “gender-based analysis”. 

In plain language, this seems to mean that a team of bureaucrats, probably highly paid and predominantly if not exclusively female, will cast about looking for statistical differences between men and women in areas such as income, employment and representation in elected office.  They will then complain—sorry, that’s “report”—to parliament and the press that Canada still has not done enough to bring about equality for women. They can be expected to follow up with recommendations on how to bring about their version of equality.

And just what is that version?  To find out, you have to consult a 2005 report called “Equality for Women:  Beyond the Illusion.”  The first thing you will learn here is that there is “a very real danger” that some people might actually subscribe to the “illusion” that Canada already has equality for women.  Uh-oh—mea culpa.  The report’s authors, however, know better.

They acknowledge that Canada already provides what they call “formal equality” or equality of opportunity.  In other words, our laws treat men and women equally.  But equal treatment, they claim, has not turned out to yield “the expected results.” 

That depends, I venture to suggest, on what results you expected. If you expected women en masse to behave exactly like men en masse merely because there were no legal obstacles to their doing so, then of course you would be disappointed. The biological differences between men and women make such an expectation ridiculous. There is ample scientific evidence of differences between male and female brains that accounts for the tendency of men to excel in--and therefore cluster in--certain occupations, while women excel in and cluster in others. And, of course, there’s the fact that only women can give birth to babies and breastfeed them—an event that frequently affects their occupational choices and career paths.

But the authors aren’t satisfied with the equal treatment of men and women under the law, because they reject equality of opportunity as society’s ultimate goal.  The goal they prefer is equality of outcome—what they call “substantive equality”. 

The report makes it clear we haven’t got it yet. Here are some of the indicators.  In Canada’s corporate sector, women comprise only a tiny percentage of senior executives, directors, and top earners. In the political sphere, women hold only about 21 percent of the seats in the House of Commons and provincial legislatures. In education, women obtain fewer than 20 percent of the engineering degrees (although they get about 65 percent of teaching degrees). And of course there’s the famous wage gap:  women working full time earn only 71 percent of what men working full time make.

These are the same feminist complaints we’ve been hearing for decades.  There are important questions that must be answered before any policy decisions are made in response to them. 

First:  where is the evidence that women would get more overall satisfaction from their lives if they had an equal number of corporate directorships, seats in the House of Commons, or engineering degrees? There may be a small percentage of women who yearn for these things, but there is a small percentage of women who’ve actually got them.  Those two percentages may already be the same. The vast majority of women may not want these things. Money and fame do not necessarily buy happiness.

For instance, people often suggest to me that I should run for political office, but I’m not the least bit tempted. I don’t want to disrupt my home life by having to live in two places. But more importantly, I couldn’t stomach spending day after day listening to the mindless drivel that passes for political discourse in the House of Commons. Holding office would make me dreadfully unhappy. 

If most women feel as I do and choose not to run, then it is not surprising that very few seats are held by women. This is not the result of some cosmic unfairness, but of the choices women themselves make regarding what courses of action will optimize their lives. If women are generally happier not holding political office, why would we wish this curse upon more of them?

The same reasoning applies in every area where women are underrepresented. I wouldn’t want to be a senior corporate executive or an engineer no matter what those jobs paid. Most other women I know wouldn’t, either. Why do the authors of the report assume that women’s non-participation in these occupations is involuntary or requires fixing? Unless they can show—and they certainly didn’t even attempt it in their 66-page report—that women are being rejected by corporations or engineering schools disproportionately to the numbers who apply, then where’s the problem? 

But what about the infamous wage gap? For decades, studies have shown that when you compare apples to apples, the gap turns out to be a myth.  Women earn just as much as men, or sometimes slightly more. The crucial features that must be kept constant when doing the comparison are marital status and parental status. Never-married, childless women earn the same incomes as never-married, childless men.

Income levels diverge when people marry and have children. Married men, statistically, earn more than unmarried men—possibly because the responsibility of having to provide for a family spurs them on to work longer hours and seek more responsible, more lucrative positions. Married women, on the other hand, earn statistically less than unmarried women—possibly because the responsibilities they assume in the home reduce their ability or desire to work longer or harder elsewhere.   

But the key questions that must be asked of those who campaign for equality of outcome are these.  What do you propose to do if men and women stubbornly refuse to change their choices to fall into the numerical pigeonholes you’ve slated them for? What kind of coercion are you prepared to unleash upon them to achieve your goal? And how much worse are you prepared to this make the world for everyone else?

For if we insist that 50 percent of our engineers be female when only 20 percent of women are interested, we will either have to dragoon some unwilling women into engineering school, or reduce overall class sizes until women make up half the class.  The former solution would result in a contingent of engineers who are uninterested in their field and might erect shoddy buildings and bridges. The latter would result in a smaller contingent of engineers which will reduce the amount of construction that can be done and increase the cost.   

The philosophy behind Mr. Dion’s proposed Commissioner of Gender Equality is flawed.  The outcome of setting up such a body would be harmful. Let’s hope women voters don’t take the bait. 


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       October 22, 2008