Much of the inequality within our society is not the result of individuals acting out of malice, but from institutional harm – the maintenance of the “just the way things are” status quo – which is often even more harmful.

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This article is something of a response to a comment I received on my “why I am a feminist” article. A reader made two comments that I would like to respond to directly before making more general comments. Facebook commenter “Franz Joseph” (who is rather social media savvy for a century-dead Austrian emperor) wrote a long post with a number of objections that were preemptively rebutted/answered in my article (e.g., that women aren’t CEOs because of maternity/family-orientation, but here’s another article, this one in the Harvard Business Review, that refutes that idea), however he did also say the following:

    “You sight [sic] the percentages of women in leadership roles, but the idea that women are being actively discriminated and that people that seek to prevent them from attaining power solely based on the fact that they’re women seems to be a bit of a stretch…You then go on to sight [sic] the small percentages of women in congress. But once again, this isn’t so much because of overt discrimination as it is because of the differences between men and women.”


    “I think you ignore the fundamental physiological and psychological differences between men and women (that science has confirmed and that have evolved over thousands of years) in pursuit of an egalitarian utopia that cannot exist. Men are simply more ambitious, competitive, aggressive, and more likely to be geniuses. Here’s some studies to back those claims up:”

At which point he quotes, among others, the Daily Mail in support.

Despite that, these comments express two, intrinsically related, assumptions that are common and are worth addressing. To the first comment, that it “seems a bit of a stretch” that these issues are because women are facing active discrimination. The short answer is that I never claimed it was primarily because of active discrimination. In fact, I specifically said it was because of systematic issues such as “entrenched attitudes” (though active discrimination absolutely exists). Inequality doesn’t need to be intentional to be real and it doesn’t need to be active and deliberate to cause harm. In fact, institutional inequality is partially defined by the fact it is not intentional and that it exists as part of the status quo norms within a given culture. Jo Freeman put it well when she said:

    “Discrimination can occur both individually and institutionally. Acts of individual discrimination are often both conscious and obvious…Institutional discrimination is built into the structure itself. Thus it is more covert and more tenacious. It can occur regardless of the desires or intentions of the people perpetuating it.

    Consequently, one must not ask what are the motives of the individuals involved but what are the results of their actions. Institutional discrimination is may easily seen statistically. If a particular group is disproportionately absent in comparison to the pool of those possessing the relevant skills, discrimination is occurring even if it is impossible to document specific individual instances…As institutional discrimination is built into the normal working relationships of institutions, its perpetuation requires only that people continue “business as usual.”

And this is where the second comment connects: the status quo is to view the differences between men and women as inherent or fundamental to their gender and that it’s these inherent characteristics that lead to unequal outcomes. Ironically, one of the commenter’s non-Daily Mail links provided to support the idea that women are inherently less competitive than men was to this Washington Post article, which states that the reason that women are often less competitive than men is because of gender norms. In other words, because that’s the social status quo (i.e., not because of inherent characteristics).

One, the idea that women enter the workplace or the political realm with less ambition than men is not nearly as true as people think. A Bain & Company study (reported in Harvard Business Review) found that “women with two years or less of work experience slightly led men in ambition” and it was only after time in the corporate environment that they started to lag behind. Beyond that, it is an assumption without support that the qualities that the commenter mentioned – ambition, competitiveness, and aggressiveness – are actually optimal in the workplace.

Indeed, it is clearly those qualities that are rewarded in the workplace. A hypothetical male manager works his way up the corporate ladder, attributing his success to the personal qualities that society and the corporate environment have nurtured, he then, when given the opportunity, rewards the candidate who most reflects those qualities – likely another male candidate.

This however is an example of institutional discrimination, not a refutation of it. This example plays itself out in STEM fields: when an identical resume was submitting to hiring managers under both a male and female name, faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. In the corporate world, the idea that “masculine characteristics” (to the degree that term even holds water) are optimal is belied by the fact that firms that had women on their board have share prices that outperform firms without a woman on the board and that firms with three or more women on their board saw equity and return on capital that is well above average (same link).

Anecdotally, this makes sense. Humans have lived the vast majority of our existence on this earth as hunter-gatherers. We’re pack animals, or to put it more poetically, “A man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficient that he does not need to do so, must either be a beast or a god” (Aristotle). We have risen to the “top of the food chain” because we collaborate and because we place the good of the group over individual good.

What do we call someone who places personal ambition and aggressive pursuit of a goal above all else? We call them CEOs, but we also call them psychopaths, and it’s not a coincidence that boardrooms are full of them and their relentless pursuit of profit above all else may have caused the most recent global financial crisis. Yet despite that, we (both the commenter and society) continue to value those qualities despite the evidence to the contrary (such as that linked above).

That’s quite the deleterious status quo, right? A “business as usual” that rewards sub-optimal uniformity, suppresses profitable diversity, and perpetuates harmful inequality…That’s institutional discrimination. In this instance, the corporate version in all its custom-tailored, three-piece glory.

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