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Equality of opportunity?
One quality we all share as humans is we are all different from each other. These differences shape us as individuals and as members of groups. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict once remarked, “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” How we go about doing that is not a simple task. One step is to ensure that people aren’t excluded from equality of opportunity—such as in employment—based on arbitrary cultural and personal differences.
Cultural differences are part of our expressive behaviour and identity. They include a person’s ethnicity, their gender, religion and much else. Many nations have laws to try and ensure employment discrimination based on difference doesn’t occur. Yet as some can attest, hiring and firing is often based on subjective decision-making and perceived stereotypes about a person's abilities.
At this year’s Matriculation ceremony at UWI, St Augustine Campus, there was an interesting visual contrast. In the front row, sat ahead of the new first year undergrads, were the top performers at this year’s Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). Understandably they looked nervous as they waited to be honoured. On the main stage were senior UWI officials, there to welcome the incoming undergraduate class of 2015, as well as offer congrats to the SEA’s stars.
The contrast wasn’t between those looking nervous and the more composed regulars at such ceremonies. Rather it was about gender. Of the SEA students sat in the front row 12 were girls and one boy. Of the 13 senior members of the UWI Administrative and Academic staff on stage ten were men and three women.
The visual contrast is anecdotal. Yet when thinking about equality of opportunity based on gender it does prompt the thought—why if girls are massively outperforming boys at age 11 are there not more women represented on stage amongst the top tier of UWI officials?
It is impossible to answer that question conclusively. The variables are too many. Some claim a gender bias exists in society. A structural impediment like the proverbial glass ceiling that prevents one group from reaching the top. Others suggest perhaps women make life choices that aren’t conducive to senior positions.
Another way to look at the problem has been to view it from the perspective of male underachievement in education. A reality often blamed on poor-parenting and school-teaching experiences that produce an anti-education male identity. However, in the context of equality of opportunity that view fails to account for the dominance of men in leadership positions in later life.
As any good researcher will tell you pinpointing why is always hard because correlation does not mean causality. Real life is messy. But here is a takeaway worth considering. A recent study was conducted into gender bias in hiring for academic jobs in the hard sciences.
It was a randomised controlled experiment where faculty members—both men and women—were given identical job application packages and asked to evaluate a candidate. The only difference was that half the faculty members were given applications with a man’s name and the other half were given the same application but with a woman’s name.
Across the board the “female” applicants were deemed to be less competent, less employable and less suitable to be mentored. They were also offered a lower starting salary. What was most revealing was that the gender bias wasn’t just on the part of men. It was equally coming from faculty members who were women too.
This suggests we aren’t talking about blatant sexism here but more subtle biases. These biases seem to have been absorbed and are reproduced by women themselves. One way to describe this is to say patriarchy is commonsensical and women can be involved in its maintenance and reproduction.
Perhaps in trying to adapt and survive in the “man’s world” of the hard sciences some have absorbed cultural stereotypes and myths about women. These stereotypes and myths reinforce each other and become a factor in the exclusion of suitably qualified women from having true equality of opportunity in pursuing particular jobs.
Put most simply this means that in our everyday lives many of us might be reinforcing through subtle, implicit, assumptions about each other, the exclusion of one group over another. And that’s one way power works. It is subconscious. We can all get caught unawares, reproducing societal stereotypes about competency that reinforce a system built to deny certain people true equality of opportunity.
• Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
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