“It should be about who does a better job, and not about gender.” Well, not really.

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Some are hesitant about putting pressure on corporations to increase boardroom diversity because it appears unmeritocratic. This rests on a mistake. Meritocracy is only upheld when people are given an equal chance to succeed, and when rewards are unbiasedly distributed. This does not always happen in reality, because sexism leads to inequality of opportunity and skewed notions of ‘ability’ that are prejudicial to women. 

The current number of women on the board of listed companies in Singapore is a little under 10 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in the USA29 per cent in France, 28 per cent in Sweden and 36 per cent in Norway. In response to this,  a “comply or explain” disclosure policy has been proposed, with the aim of increasing Singapore’s percentage of women in the boardroom to 20% in three years. More details can be found in Bertha Henson’s (The Middle Ground) coverage of this story yesterday.

I have seen some people respond with the following query: “Shouldn’t it be about who does a better job, and not about gender?” This is a familiar response, which I have heard on multiple occasions. I can understand why this response might be intuitive to some. In Singapore, we are taught that we are a nation built on meritocracy – that we reward people according to ability, not privilege. Hence, placing external pressure on companies to increase female representation, might constitute distributing rewards based on something other than merit. However, I argue that to adopt this reasoning here is to commit what I call the ‘meritocratic fallacy’ – that is, to rely on meritocracy as a justification for some policy when the essential conditions of meritocracy are not met. This has two dimensions: the ‘ability’ and ‘opportunity’ dimensions. Through these dimensions, I will explain why saying something like “it should be about who does a better job, and not about gender” can be problematic.

A. The Ability Dimension

Negative stereotypes can misdirect fair assessments of ability… I am fully aware of the spurious negative assumptions that men make about women.

When we appeal to meritocracy, we often forget that the definition of ‘merit’ or ‘ability’ is not uncontroversial. We also sometimes forget to ask: ‘Who does the selection? What are their interests? And what are their biases?’ 

Global corporate leadership remains predominantly male-dominated. It is unclear if assessments of ability by one’s male bosses are truly unbiased. Some women actually do a better job. However, negative stereotypes can misdirect fair assessments of ability, and growing up in Singapore, I am fully aware of the spurious negative assumptions that men make about women.

Furthermore, conceptions of ability held by a male-dominated leadership, operating in a male-dominated environment may disadvantage women. For example, if ‘doing a better job’ entails getting along well with one’s boardroom colleagues, and if ‘getting along well’ means doing what one might colloquially consider ‘male activities’, or blending into a workplace culture that is more ‘male-friendly’ as a whole, then of course women are disadvantaged. In addition, it is not inconceivable that male-dominated boardrooms under-value diversity, and fail to consider that women can offer something different, rather than merely doing the same job ‘better’.

Hence, pressuring companies to change their behavior is not antithetical to meritocracy; rather it is an attempt to fix a broken meritocratic system.

B. The Opportunity Dimension

But even if we assume that there are not enough women ‘good enough’ to justify a 50:50 ratio in the boardroom, we ought to ask why. Clearly it is not because women are intrinsically less able than men. To date, there is no scientific evidence supports this; in fact, some research suggest that there is more than meets the eye.

It seems normal to buy dolls for our daughters, but microscopes and toy cars for our sons; no wonder there aren’t more women in science and engineering!

Aside from direct discrimination, it is argued inequality persists because of at least two reasons.

First, many women are denied opportunities throughout their lives that men would have had access to because of our gendered attitudes towards child-raising. For example, people often ask: “why aren’t there more women in science and engineering?” It is not because women are not as good at science and engineering, but because our gender-based approach towards child-raising steers them away from opportunities – e.g. boys who write poetry are ‘unmasculine’; girls who play in the dirt are ‘unfeminine’. This includes the toys we buy our children. It seems normal to buy dolls for our daughters, but microscopes and toy cars for our sons – no wonder there aren’t more women in science and engineering! Furthermore, women tend to be influenced by their family and peers, either directly or indirectly, to be less assertive, and less combative than their male counterparts. This could affect their access to opportunities, since , as one female writer noted, being less outspoken and less assertive increases the probability of being looked over, especially in a competitive social and professional environment.

Second, traditional expectations concerning child-bearing and child-rearing hold women back. Even though in the 25 – 34 year old bracket, there are more women than men who are university graduates, this does not appear to have translated to a more equal male-female ratio in the area of corporate leadership; at least not for now.

On this point, however, note that in order to lighten the burdens of child-rearing for women, men need to play a bigger role; but, it is difficult for men to play that role when employers are unsympathetic (“shouldn’t that be your wife’s job?”), and when men are instructed by society that child-raising does not form part of their primary gender role. The introduction of government-paid paternity lave from this year onward is a step in the right direction. However, if social attitudes do not change, men will be deterred from using it. Furthermore, the burdens of child rearing extend beyond just the first few weeks of a child’s birth.

Conclusion

The argument that “it should be about who does a better job, and not about gender” is true insofar as the basic conditions for a functioning meritocracy are met. However, this does not appear to be the case. Inequality of opportunity, and flawed measurements and non-neutral appraisals of ‘ability’ means that our system of meritocracy is broken. Committing ourselves to ‘meritocracy’ in these circumstances is similar to stressing an already malfunctioning engine. Pressuring companies to change their behavior is not antithetical to meritocracy; rather it is an attempt to fix a broken system.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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