Where's the outcry?
American Prospect Online - Fighting for Fair Treatment
In Memphis in 1997, Burlington Northern hired Sheila White to operate a forklift in its rail yard. The other employees, all men, were furious -- even though none of them had the qualifications to run the forklift -- because forklift driver was considered the plum job. White’s foreman and co-workers told her insistently that they didn’t think a woman should be working there in a rail yard.
Is it really possible that in 1997 people were still talking about “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs”? Yes, it’s illegal. But forklift operator, a coveted blue-collar job that often pays more than ordinary factory or day laborer work, is widely considered a man’s job, and women are often told they can’t do it...
Employers are getting away with blatant sex discrimination because there’s no public outcry -- indeed, almost no public scrutiny at all. Think how easy it was for me to grab a good seat to hear Burlington Northern v. White, with two long empty rows of press seats behind me. Yes, it’s important that women have the right to decide what happens inside their uteruses. But it’s just as important that we be able to support ourselves. When will we start to care passionately about whether women are treated fairly on the job?
Those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk. To rehearse the obvious, we the talkers--academics, journalists and political activists--don't know any forklift drivers and have never considered forklift driving as a career option. We've had abortions or know people who have or can imagine being in a circumstances where access to safe, legal abortion would be important for us, our daughters or people we know.
Of course it's important that women have the right to decide what happens inside their uteruses. But from the plain, crude utilitarian perspective it is, if anything more important to eliminate sex segregation in employment. Last time I looked, the index of sex segregation in the labor force was 60%, that is, to eliminate sex segregation in employment, 60% of working women would have to have to change jobs. I don't have disaggregated figures but it's a safe bet that jobs that don't take a college degree--the majority of jobs, and the ones that we, the talkers, don't notice--account for most of that figure. In any case, far more people suffer from the effects of sex segregation and the male-female wage gap, and including not only women but children living in poverty as a consequence, than will ever be directly effected by policies on abortion or, as noted in the article, the other liberal signature issue--gay rights. This isn't to say that progressives should drop these issues--but that they should pay more attention to bread-and-butter issues that aren't of immediate concern to their "base": the talkers.
I've just gotten back from a conference on discrimination at which participants addressed the question of what constituted (wrongful) discrimination. Most thought that this was a vexed question. I don't understand this skepticism: if a woman can't get a job driving a forklift, or having gotten one against the odds can't keep it because her forman and mates object to a woman doing a "man's job," that is discrimination. A slim majority argued that even if there was wrongful discrimination in employment, it would be wrong for the state to intervene. There were subtle reasons for this involving "rights."
It was actually one of the best conferences I've attended--and I'm a conference junkie. The discussion was terrific. But sometimes I felt that I was from a different moral universe. To me, as a consequentialist, the problem is obvious, even if the fix is difficult and complicated: lots of people are badly off because women can't get "men's jobs" and, to a lesser but not negligible extent, because men can't get some fairly desirable "women's jobs." The costs to people whose choices are restricted by this system is much greater than the benefits to clients, customers and co-workers who want people who do various jobs to look the part. The market isn't working so it needs to be fixed. The hard part is figuring out the most efficient way to do it or, realistically, to make some headway in that direction. Things will never be perfect, but they can be better. Why is this so hard to see?
The sense I got was, oh sure, if you're a Utilitarian its easy but let's see what we can make of the discrimination issue operating within a framework involving "rights," "autonomy" and that sort of thing. But why not turn this on its head: we know what discrimination is in central cases--we know the meaning even if we don't know the analysis--and we know it's wrong. Now let's come up with an ethical theory to explain why, and figure out how to fix it. Consequentialism does a really good job.
Next weekend I'll go to the local SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) conference where I will do another number, this time on multiculturalism, arguing again on consequentialist grounds that what Sen calls "plural monoculturalism," the "salad bowl" model, is a bad thing for the same reasons that Sen does: it restricts individual choice. Whereas I had fun at the discrimination conference, and get a fair hearing from rights-obsessed libertarians and deontologists, I have the sense that many members of SWIP don't want me there--when I arrive it's like "Oh, shit, here comes H. the Utilitarian." I go because I am very, very interested in feminist issues and related questions, like the multiculturalism question, because I want comments on papers I write on these issues, preferably hostile since those are in many respects the most helpful, and because this is the most accessible venue for discussing these issues. But I get panned for not being a real feminist--not only at SWIP meetings but in print: I discovered ex post facto that I'd been cited in a book on "backlash" as part of the backlash to feminist philosophy.
Well, why, dammit? From the practical point of view I am on board with the agenda. I argue for the elimination of sex roles. I argue for affirmative action, including hard quotas. I'm pro-choice and support equal treatment for gays, though these just aren't the burning issues for me. Increasingly, academic feminists--particularly in philosophy, have latched onto crazy theories to defend programs for promoting women's equality and this just plays into the hands of the opposition. I have data, I have arguments and I have a fairly respectable, if controversial, ethical framework to support feminist claims. Where's the beef?