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Gender differences/outcomes ≠ gender inequality (of opportunity, rights and respect)
Let me explain.
For those of you outside of the UK or not following some current news in the UK, some rabid argumentation has erupted concerning the Labour MP Jess Phillips concerning a Tory MP’s demands for a debate on International Men’s Day to discuss men’s matters. Apparently, the feminism is pretty evil (from what I have been reading) and men are discriminated against to the point that they need their own International Day. Phillips, aside from being an MP, is an equalities and domestic violence campaigner. She also manages a charity supporting victims of domestic and sexual assault in Birmingham. Here is the context:
A Labour MP had a powerful response to a Twitter user who asked her to prove she had not fabricated threats of sexual violence.
Jess Phillips received a barrage of disparaging tweets and messages threatening to rape her after she appeared in a backbench business committee where the Conservative MP Philip Davies called for a House of Commons debate on International Men’s Day.
Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and the only woman on the board, was the first to question Davies and insisted the gender inequality still prevalent within society means there is no need for such a debate yet. “As the only woman on this committee, it seems like every day to me is International Men’s Day,” she said. “When I’ve got parity, when women in these buildings have parity, you can have your debate. And that will take an awfully long time.”
On Thursday, she voiced her distress after being subjected to violent sexist abuse on Twitter because of her objections.
Phillips was called out for false accusation for claiming there were horrible tweets. She obliged with what was perhaps the worst tweet/statement I have yet seen online. WARNING – VERY EXPLICIT:
That such humans exist and can spew forth such hatred…well…
This has then prompted articles, further attacks on her, and defences of her. Some of the comment threads I have read make me truly sad for humanity, and the state of British society, once a liberal bastion of good values, now so often a dog pit of rabid nonsense.
There is so much wrong with the approach of MRA (Men’s Right Activism / sts) advocates that it is hard to know where to start. Let me lay out the issues with the Phillips scenario:
- Phillips is the only woman sitting on backbench business committee which was meeting
- Conservative MP Philip Davis suggested: “I thought that in the spirit of gender equality, it would only be right to have a debate to commemorate International Men’s Day,” which is on the 19th of November. Explaining that “Not only do we already have International Women’s Day, we also have women and equality questions every month in the chamber, which we don’t have for men, so the opportunity for men to raise issues that are important to them is very limited.”
- Phillips laughed at this.
- Davies hit back, listing issues: “Such as men’s shorter life expectancy, wider men’s health issues, many of which go unreported because of embarrassment,” he said, as well as, “the high suicide rate amongst men, the propensity for violence against men… the underachievement of boys in educationcompared to girls,” and “the issues around father-child relationships.”
This is a common trope. It is the idea that since women get entitlement to have opportunity to discuss women’s issues, then men should be entitled to the same. This is equality.
Apart from MRAs just don’t seem to get that this is not right. It’s not what it’s about. There aren’t women’s days, and questions in Parliament to just “discuss women’s stuff” so to speak. There are these things in place because women have faced millennia of discrimination, and this imbalance is in the process of being addressed. This tit for tat idea of equality utterly misses the point. If I could have a penny for the number of times I have read such comments and ideas…
The logic is the same as this, for analogy:
I am a white man. I see there are black organisations and black movements and structures and opportunities to discuss and do positive action. Equality means we have the same, right? So I think we should have an International White Day, with white organisations and whatnot.
The problem with why some people see this as an appealing idea is twofold. And incidentally, Phillips wasn’t laughing at men’s suicide (rates) or any raised issue, but at the notion that men need such a day, because of perceived gender imbalance.
1. Historical-to-present context
Historically, women have been disadvantaged. It is about equality of opportunity, and they have, in general terms, been denied such. For example, marital rape was still legal in the UK until 1991! Gender pay gaps still exist, despite what people like Christina Somers try to claim. I won’t labour the point, because with some simple researching, it is pretty obvious. In fact, I used to argue similarly when in business, that men were cheaper to employ for me due to maternity leave etc. I actually was cimplicit in presenting a barrier for women to enter the business, where both potential employees had equal merit otherwise. As a result, structures need to be positively put in place in order to redress this imbalance, these barriers to opportunity. (In some scenarios, there might even be some positive discrimination, which may act against men. This happens, potentially, with the Rooney Rule. But the good outcomes outweigh the negatives.) Topically, movement to equalise maternity/paternity leaves is a good move.
In philosophical terms, it is difficult to argue superiority of gender, especially as there is no merit involved and no choice in choosing one’s sex (in simple terms, sex ops aside). So equality of opportunity seems an admirable goal. If people have the opportunity, they can then choose fairly and freely (issues of free will aside!) in any given scenario.
In the same way, things are in place to ensure racial equality of opportunity; it has required positive laws, structures and organisations to be put in place. We now no longer have slavery on the scale we used to (at one end of the extreme), and we have greater balance of opportunity for people of colour in every measure of society. Things are moving in the right direction, even if we are not there yet. As mentioned, though, I don’t think this entitles me to white organisations and whatnot.
2. Instances of male disadvantage
This is pretty much the core issue, and is what is consistently infiltrating the articles and comment threads on this subject. There are confusions and conflations between instantiation and universals. There is universal discrimination in favour of men, which, whilst improving, still pervades, often very subtly. Whilst I wouldn’t want to deny individual cases of unfairness their due attention, this is not representative of a societal malaise in the context of men.
It is effectively the fallacy of hasty generalisation, to label all instances of where the scenario is unfair to men (and these undoubtedly exist) as being reflective of life at large, and thus society and the country/world favours women over men. This appears to be where MRA advocates are at. As mentioned, in the same way, a white person can be denied a job on account of some (unfair, perhaps positive) discrimination in a given instance. This does not then mean that society is, in general terms, discriminatory against white people, and we need white advocacy groups to fix it!
Furthermore, some of the subject matters focused upon are not good analogies to the striving for gender balance, the sort with which feminists concern themselves.
Let us pick one:
Male Suicide Rates
This was not only picked up by Davies, the Conservative MP at the heart of this issue, but is being heralded all over the internet and articles detailing the controversy. The idea is this: men have higher suicide rates than women, this is a gender issue, and men need structures and organisations to discuss this and do something about it.
Okay, so let’s look at the actual situation. As The Guardian reported on Nick Clegg’s desire earlier this year to tackle suicide:
This week saw the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, appeal for the widespread adoption of a “zero suicide” campaign in the NHS. This is admirable, but a concerted effort to prevent people from taking their own lives would be more effective if we understood why suicide is a particularly male problem. It’s known as the “gender paradox of suicidal behaviour”.
Research suggests that women are especially prone to psychological problems such as depression, which almost always precede suicide. In western societies, overall rates of mental health disorders tend to be around 20-40% higher for women than for men.
Given the unequal burden of distress implied by these figures, it is hardly surprising that women are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts. The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England 2007 survey found that 19% of women had considered taking their own life. For men the figure was 14%. And women aren’t simply more likely to think about suicide – they are also more likely to act on the idea. The survey found that 7% of women and 4% of men had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
(These are startling figures in their own right, but it is also worth remembering just how devastating the effects of a death by suicide can be for loved ones left behind. Studies have shown, for example, an increased risk of subsequent suicide in partners, increased likelihood of admission to psychiatric care for parents, increased risk of suicide in mothers bereaved by an adult child’s suicide, and increased risk of depression in offspring bereaved by the suicide of a parent.)
So if women are more likely to suffer from psychological problems, to experience suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide, how do we explain why men are more likely to die by suicide?
What this then shows is that men are “better” at committing suicide than women. The implication from people like MRA advocates is that this is some gender inequality (of opportunity, rights and respects) issue. That is effectively a correlation fallacy, of sorts. They THINK there is gender inequality (rights and respects) favouring women and that men have it bad, and that this somehow causes higher suicide rates.
The simple question to ask oneself is, “Is male suicide rates being higher a result of sexism?” And the answer is a resounding no.
Men have no less access, in statutory or societal terms, to mental health services. There might be a perception from men themselves that they feel uncomfortable talking about mental health issues (and I laud Professor Green for talking about this), but there is no lack of opportunity compared to women.
Disparity between the sexes in certain behaviours is not about gender inequality of opportunity. I really think MRA advocates need to understand this, as do most people commenting on such articles. They are being naive. Men successfully commit suicide more than women, though women have higher proportional depression/suicidal thoughts/suicide attempts. This comes down to why men are “better” at it, which probably comes down to the sorts of methods men choose (one of the three prevalent theories).
Point being that this is a mental health issue which needs addressing as a whole, by improved mental health services. It does not need an International Men’s Day, in the same way that pregnancy does not, prima facie, require an International Women’s Day, even though vastly more women give birth than men! The whole paradigm concerns equality of opportunity, rights and respect.
Gender differences/outcomes ≠ gender inequality (of opportunity, rights and respect)
The fact that people like to throw around “feminism” as a term without really showing understanding of what they mean by it (and the fact that the term is so hotly contested within philosophy) is telling. I would refer to the SEP in showing it in simplest terms:
- (Normative) Men and women are entitled to equal rights and respect.
- (Descriptive) Women are currently disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect, compared with men […in such and such respects and due to such and such conditions…].
How do men successfully committing suicide more than women align with this?
They are two separate things. (And if people confuse this with me not caring about (male) suicide, then no wonder they end up writing comments and articles like they do).
MRA advocates and much of the right wing press (eg Telegraph, Breitbart etc) are getting it wrong. They are not comparing like for like. They are comparing outcomes (suicide/educational attainment) with equality of opportunity, rights and respect.
Once could counter “Well, pay/employment where women get less/don’t get the job are just examples of outcome”. No, not in the same way. They are examples of outcomes effected (yes with an e) by barriers to parity in opportunity. Whether it be astounding movie gender pay gaps (World Economic Forum gender survey shows that Britain is slipping quickly down the world equality table) or other examples of gender inequality which act as barriers women achieving parity, there is still work to be done in achieving this type of parityp. Eg:
- Forced marriage prevalence in the UK
- A third of people still thinking women wholly or partially morally responsible for being raped if drunk, quarter if wearing revealing clothes
- 51% of women and men from middle management to director level identify stereotyping as the major hurdle facing women at work
- The imbalance of representation and portrayal in the media
- Under-representation in FTSE and large corporation boardrooms etc. (Using boardroom quotas, Norway increased women’s representation on company boards from 6% in 2002 to 44% in 2010. During that same period European board representation only rose from 2% to 9.7%. Some interesting early Norway findings are discussed here. A gender diverse board leads a company to better financial performance. Diverse boards have also been shown to strengthen a company’s talent pipeline and increase innovation, leading to a stronger group performance.)
Jess Phillips was possibly ill-advised to laugh at the time she did as this has been misinterpreted as contempt for the issues that Davies was bringing up. It’s only that these issues are jot generally ones of equality of opportunity, rights and respect, which is what feminism seeks to address, though they are all serious issues to be solved. I don’t think we need an International Men’s Day to solve then, though.