Above we see the leader image from an article of the British Computer Society (BCS) of which I am a member (CITP). The quote ‘computing is too important to be left to men’ is from Karen Spark Jones, a professor of IT at Cambridge; as far as I can determine, it was made comically (native English speakers will know the linguistic template from various comedic plays, TV shows etc). It seems to be used here as if it were serious, however, and what follows on the BCS website conforms to the wearisome and confused narrative of gender-fetishisation, from which no profession appears to be free today.
What do I mean by gender-fetishisation? Let’s consider what kinds of sensible message might be articulated in professional organisations, government, and in society in general, with respect to hiring or otherwise taking on new people. The primary thing I think we all agree on is that there is no place for discrimination on irrelevant characteristics of people applying for positions within organisations. If there is an accounting job advertised at Acme Constructions Inc, anyone should be able to apply, and the successful applicant should be the one who fulfills work-relevant criteria – primarily competency in accounting, appropriate previous experience, ability to work with the team, and whose remuneration requirement is acceptable to the employer. We should not care if it is a man, woman, what colour he/she is, or what their sexual persuasion is. These characteristics are irrelevant to the job.
But they might not always be. If the organisation is looking for a board member of the British Womens Tennis Association, it might be reasonable to consider only women; if the requirement is for someone who can reach and open and close standard aircraft cabin overhead bins, then dwarfs will not make the grade. The army doesn’t want you if you have certain physical limitations that would make you a risk to yourself and others in combat. And so on.
To repeat the basic principle:
- organisations should not discriminate on characteristics not relevant to the position;
- conversely, an organisation should select on relevant characteristics, primarily merit.
So far, so obvious. However, what we find in the typical narrative today is a confused set of statements about ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’, with the unavoidable frequent use of the word ‘celebrate’. See below, for a typical example. This set of statements appears to be intended to apply to the BCS itself as an employing organisation, but clearly it thinks that the same values should be applied to employers in industry (the BCS is after all, an advocacy organisation). I have highlighted statements that I consider sensible with a tick, those that are confused or meaningless with a question mark, and those that are probably wrong with a cross.
The obviously correct statements in this article are restatements of the principle above. How about the questionable statements, which are as follows:
- [the organisation must] value each other’s differences
- [the organisational culture must be such that] people are able to express their individual identities and celebrate diversity
- only by accepting and valuing diversity can we enable people to achieve their full potential.
Ignoring the poor grammar of the first one, the impression is of an organisation that is intended to host a permanent party to celebrate everyone’s differences. Like the fact of how black the accountant is? Or how gay the young fellow in quantity surveying is? Or how nice it is that we have an ex-victim of Syrian torture in admin? Or how old, white, straight and male Mr Reynolds in legal is? I’m sure all of this will be extremely popular at afternoon coffee.
The third statement implies that organisations can’t help people reach their potential unless their diversity is ‘accepted’ – well that’s good, if we are talking about job-irrelevant characteristics, but if we are not, well then we don’t need to accept their diversity. If the applicant is a hardline religious fundamentalist, he/she most likely won’t pass the ‘works well with others’ test, let alone get a job as a lecturer in evolutionary biology. It also says diversity needs to be ‘valued’. How? This prescriptive notion is the reverse of what is needed: a proscription against devaluing the person simply because of his / her differences.
None of this describes any organisation I want to run, work in, or fund via my taxes. What I want is something very simple: organisations that value competency, don’t discriminate on irrelevant characteristics, do discriminate on merit, and are good places to work. Organisations where people just treat each other as individuals.
The statement I tagged with an ‘X’ above is about the organisation “achieving and maintaining a workplace that broadly reflects the local community in which we want to operate”. At best this is nonsensical. In what way could an IT company, or the BCS itself ‘broadly reflect the local community’? The BCS is for a start a truly national organisation. But let’s assume they meant ‘society’. How would the BCS, or another IT-specific organisation (say, a website developer) ‘reflect’ society in general? The text is so badly worded that it gives no clue. However, we can assume that since it follows the standard diversity-fetish narrative, its intention is the same, which is the following: that the demographic make-up of (any) organisation should be approximately the same as that of society.
Which is to say, since there are 50% females in society generally, the organisation must consist of 50% female employees. Good luck with that in a company supplying physical warehouse labour. Or if society has 5% ‘black’ (however identified) people, so must the employer. But how does an employer know if it has enough ‘black’ people? Are brown-skinned people black enough? And if society has 7% homosexuals, we must cover that as well, at which point privacy will be come a serious issue. But we can’t stop there can we? We need 0.4% transgender representation as well (using the % shown on the LGBT demographics of the US wikipedia page). Hm, now we have real problems. Not only do we need to ask every candidate invasive questions about their gender-fluidity at interview time, we need to be an organisation of at least 250 employees so that we can hire just one transgender person, thus hitting the 0.4% rate. And what if our organisation unwittingly hired 3 trans people, and a lot more black people (let’s say it is located in a black area) than the national average? Do we import some scared white people to make up for it? As one can see, this all gets absurd fast.
The demographic absurdity isn’t the only absurdity. There is an unwritten rule that even if we can’t achieve the demographic ‘copy’ of broader society in our organisation, that nevertheless, those demographics represent the correct normative demographics of every employing organisation. Nowhere is this fetish stronger than for gender. It must be wrong that only 17% of IT employees are women, right? After all, it’s obvious that if the world were not so sexist, we would have 50% in every organisation.
Well, it’s a possibility. But I’m doubtful. In societies with high degrees of equality and strong anti-discrimination laws and culture we find statistics like:
- In the EU, 85% of primary school teachers, and 64% of secondary school teachers are female (Eurostat, 2016)
- in medicine in the US, about 36% of all doctors are women, and it is growing; in specialties like Obs/gyn it is over 80% women, and paediatrics, 71%. (AAMC 2015)
- women make up about 90% of all nurses in the western health systems (wikipedia)
- in 2016, women outnumbered men in law for the first time in Australia (although men still held more senior positions) [Lawyers Weekly, Australia]
- physical warehouse workers remains stubbornly at 95% male. Ok I just made that up, but I’m willing to bet I’m right.
Long tiresome debates could be entered into based on these imbalances, particularly the huge ones in education and nursing, with much veering off into other arguments about equal pay and over-representation of men at more senior levels. But the evidence shows that women and men in the freest countries on the planet self sort unequally into different professions. Modern (or should I say post-modern?) analysts, 3rd wave feminists etc don’t like to accept that there could be any differences, especially of the old school variety, i.e. women being more interested in caring, communication and people, and men are more interested in projects, building, and things. But all the evidence points to this as a statistical truth; and when asked about why they like teaching and nursing, women do indeed include such reasons. (There are many studies showing differences between men’s and women’s brains – here is one from Stanford Medical School). Even in law we find the ‘caring’ effect: this 2016 EU report on gender representation in law found that women tend to work with clients in lower socio-economic bands, and therefore statistically earn less. Men statistically earn more and are over-represented in property and commercial law. Maybe men like money more?
I don’t think we should be interested in socially engineering the gender proportions of any workforce. In my area, IT (and originally electrical engineering / control systems), it has always been statistically male-dominated. Currently I believe it is around 15-20% women, depending on the country and specialisation. My guess is it will get to a 35/65 split, but for all I care, it can be 90% women. Why should anyone care? Most people would like to work with competent, decent and congenial co-workers and never think about anyone’s sex, colour or other innate quality in the workplace.
The obsession with demographic mirroring of ‘diversity’ into the interior of every organisation has led to the well-known and well-critiqued ‘affirmative action’ programmes in the US and other countries (Brazil for example), and similar kinds of social engineering efforts elsewhere. The arguments against affirmative action are so numerous it’s surprising anyone thinks is a good idea, but I’ll just provide one: in universities in some countries, places are reserved for ‘black’ people, more or less regardless of scores on entry tests. One of the many awful downstream results of this is a suspicion that black people from certain universities don’t have ‘real degrees’. Imagine doing that to someone. (The correct approach to helping black people who are good students get to universities is to help poor people who are good students – a demographic in which black people in rich countries are over-represented – with their financial difficulties, e.g. via bursaries etc. Much more on this topic can be found e.g. from Thomas Sowell, a noted US academic and economist, who happens to be black).
We appear to be in an era in which every personal characteristic that is a possible basis for social victimhood is being fetishised, even in professions one would expect to be capable of more objective thinking. We have far more important things to be doing – removing obstacles for example. For every girl out there who really wants to get into IT or engineering, let’s make sure she has the same chance as anyone else, and that she gets in because she’s good, not because she’s a girl. No-one should ever review some colleague’s work and think: not bad, for a woman. We should be able to think: Rachel, great work, or Rachel, let’s go over this again. Just like for any other person.
One thing we don’t need is social engineers forcing women and men into places they don’t really want to go.